Thursday, December 26, 2019

The post where I thank everyone and spin off a new blog for a new decade

When I started this blog in 2012, I did it to make sense of my thoughts about starting my first faculty position as an Assistant Professor and to share with a few friends. Never ever I would have thought 1) that I would still be doing this seven years later, 2) that the blog would have more than 500,000 total views, and 3) that I would have become part of a community of science bloggers and Twitter users who supported me scientifically and personally for this long. On a fateful day in 2014 when Melissa @biochembelle tweeted about my posts and introduced me to the scientific community on social media everything changed. I made lots of pocket friends, many of whom became real-life friends, and I was introduced to an extended support network full of information and new ideas, often providing respite from the lonely life of starting a lab on Twitter and via the @NewPI_slack. I met colleagues who were a sounding board for grant ideas and who helped with my career progression and transition (you know who you are). I found Peg AtKisson @iGrrrl who was hired as a grant consultant and was instrumental in helping me get 2 R01s. I watched science Twitter dynamics oscillate between chaotic good and chaotic evil sometimes, and tried my best to tip the scales towards good. I learned a lot about diversity and was inspired to build a more inclusive environment wherever I go. So first of all, thank you!

With the general decline of blogging and the trend toward shorter and more immediate forms of sharing information, I was wondering if this would still be useful, but when I asked 94% of respondents said they would still want a blog. And checking the stats I realized that this site still gets 3-4,000 hits a month despite me not having posted in 10 I will keep going. Since I'm not a new PI any longer and readers asked to focus on mid-career faculty issues, I decided to start a new blog My Mid-career Academic Life. I will try and cross-reference the two blogs at the beginning to get clicks and get indexed and all the necessary internet things, but I didn't want to change the identity of The New PI blog and I prefer to move on.  I've been meaning to unpseud for a while, but today is not the day and I promise it will be soon (-ish).

In following @drugmonkeyblog's tradition to list the posts of the month at the end of each year, I decided to link 12 posts to close this blog: the 6 most read and 6 favorite ones which may not have had as much attention. Here we go.

Greatest hits:
1) Submitting your R00 proposal to transfer your K99 to your new job: a survival guide  - 12,547 hits as of today. I'm so happy this has been helpful for so many of you!

2) Interviewing for a postdoc: questions you should ask - 11,176 hits. This was for the trainees.

3) A compilation of K99 and R00 advice - 10,890 hits. This links to a lot of my other K99/R00 posts and other blogs/articles that could be useful in the process. I may skip some other popular K99 posts because they're all included here.

4) Where do you find grant money for your lab? - 5,939 hits. This is old and has not been updated in a while, but it's still a good starting list.

5) Tales of postdocs past: what did I learn? - 5,638 hits. Cultivating or identifying resilience in trainees is something faculty discusses ad nauseam and this was one of the first times I articulated some thoughts on finding the right lab peeps.

6) Will I have jumped the glass cliff in 5 years? - 5,554 hits.  Looks like the answer to that question is NO, but this was definitely one of my most emotional posts and it struck a chord with many people.

My personal faves:
1) The New PI hits the 6 month slump: how do you keep proactive? - The first 6 months of a faculty position are so hard! Whenever I bump into friends at conferences who have just started a lab, I think of this post and I just want to hug them.

2) Musings about work ethics and an unstructured schedule - I still stand by this one.

3) Is resilience the name of the game in academia? - Yes, it is. Happy to report that yours truly, Doc Becca and my nameless friend in this post are all Associate professors and NIH funded.

4) The beginning of the R01 twin strategy - This sounded crazy and controversial and it kind of worked...not as I intended because they ended up being Irish twins. But yay, twins!

5) In the belly of the beast. NIH Early Career Reviewer - Part 2 of a two-part post on the NIH ECR program. What I learned about NIH review in my first experience is still helping me now that I've been Reviewer 1.

6) Deciding which university is the right fit for you - A more recent and mature post on how to decide which environment you want to be in and how to find it.

So long, and thank you for all the fish! 🐬🐬

Monday, December 16, 2019

Dissection of a mid-career transition: what I considered in my decision

This post has been sitting here since the Spring waiting for me to have time to finish it, and I decided to leave it as it was, pretending to still be in the past.

I missed my 6th lab birthday post back in April because things were insane. Moving a lab while you're running a lab is not for the faint of heart, despite already being battle-proof in university administration. To try and do my best to avoid the almost one year of downtime that all the young uns experience when starting a lab, I'm working on coming in with all my regulatory approvals, which with two animal models and human subjects is not fun. Plus, I need to manage some form of a mouse colony and thankfully, very minimal renovations. Plus, moving current manuscripts forward to keep up seamless productivity. And finally, of course, I have to uproot and transfer my entire life...

I'll write about that process later, but the first question is why do it? And how to choose where to go? It was a very interesting and somewhat validating process, so I thought I'd share an outline of what happened because it could be helpful to others in a similar situation or just entertaining...

During the 3rd-4th year of my tenure-track, it had become clear my university was not the right place for me to thrive. Some major faculty departures, some higher-level administrative decisions, and other factors made me look for greener pastures. I didn't feel at all like a viable candidate (reasonable productivity, but no NIH funding), but I wanted to test the waters.

I monitored job ads and started applying in Europe. In Europe because I was nearing the cut-off of an ERC Consolidator grant and it was basically now or never. Deadlines for big EU grants are tighter than in the US with 7yrs from PhD for early-investigator grants and 12yrs for mid-career, so you better hustle. Even though many national early investigator programs have the usual 10yr from PhD limit, these can be smaller awards. I only applied to places I knew and that would be a good fit...and I got an interview from the first one, which was beyond shocking to me! Eventually, the 10yr young investigator deadline is what did me in for multiple searches because you're not eligible to apply for the smaller safer grants. Betting everything on a massive super-competitive grant from a system I was not familiar with was too risky for me and the institution. Some places, I heard later, screened applications based on PhD award date and didn't even look at more "senior" people. But the fact that the proverbial toe found that the water was not too cold gave me the confidence to continue...

As the US job season opened in the Fall of 2017 I looked at what was available and again only applied to places I liked, where I knew I would be a good fit, and where I knew people. When it's not your first rodeo you have the benefit of connections developed over the years. One place hit because the search was later than others and I knew someone on the search committee. I could let them know when my study section would meet so that the Skype interview was scheduled right after. My grant got funded 😀 and from the initial chat, it sounded like a good fit and I was asked for an on-site interview.

Then the insanity began! I mentioned before that a newly funded R01 is like a disco ball hanging over your head casting sparkles everywhere. When you're a mid-career hire negotiation can take a while, so I did my homework. I reached out to multiple places that were of interest and was contacted by others who knew I was "movable". Some led to additional interviews and others to possible invitations that didn't pan out. When there isn't an official search, start-up funds are harder to come by, but there may be pots of institutional money set aside from previous failed searches or for diversity/opportunity hires. You just don't know. And you always need to impress those who guard those secret stashes of cash.

Overall, I was very lucky because I had the chance to explore multiple options and really dive down on the nitty-gritty of the financials, facilities, and culture of the different places. As a postdoc, I was just grateful I was asked to visit, but now it had to be worth my while to move. I was okay where I was, I had been productive, so a move had to be targeted to supporting the next 10-20 years of my career. Fall 2018 was a whirlwind of visits, Skype calls, and phone discussions to define offer details. Months and months of excitement, confusion, and soul-searching. I went to some places multiple times or was shown facilities via video chat, spoke to everyone I needed to about animal facilities, space, cores, administration, and upper management....and I waited. Waited for people to be available, for newly negotiated amounts to be approved, for offers to be drafted, so that I had all options in front of me. My first offer came 9 months after I initially interviewed and it was renegotiated for another 3 months as other offers were coming in. 

What did I want? Primarily a place with a thriving scientific community supporting biomedical research where both myself and my trainees could be surrounded by enthusiastic colleagues and stimulating talks and symposia, a good mouse facility with dedicated space to run behavioral assays, a fully-staffed institutional zebrafish facility that could support our zebrafish research without having to run the facility myself, additional microscopy capabilities. I was also mindful to avoid toxic research environments because after a few years of working with a therapist just to be able to step into work I was mindful of my own mental health and I really wanted to be close to friends and family so that I could rely on my support network.

I think I found what I wanted, but only time will tell...

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Networking for mid-career academic job transitions

I have spent most of the past year interviewing for academic jobs, exploring new opportunities and negotiating start-up packages. Never as before I realized how valuable my network is.

When you go on the job market as a faculty member, everything is different. You are not scrutinized on whether you will be able to do the job, you are a colleague looking for new opportunities. You speak the same language as the other faculty and do not need to be interviewed to see if they understand the ropes of this business. Conversations are a lot more geared towards convincing you to bring your money elsewhere and you have the benefit of time for figuring out whether the new place has the colleagues and resources for your lab to grow, expand in new directions, and thrive. As a more senior faculty, you are also expected to contribute and your role will be very different from a newbie.

With an intimate understanding of the ins and outs of administration and power structures, and of the things that are important to you in running your lab, there are several questions that you need to be answered requiring input from inside or outside the potential new institution. In some cases, those are not questions that you can ask directly during interviews unless the person interviewing you is a friend or a trusted friend of a friend. For example, while you can ask an Associate Dean or Department Chair how they get things done to understand their leadership style, you cannot ask them how much power they really have to get things done. When they tell you there are training grants and internal grants, you cannot really ask them whether they are assigned in a meritocratic fashion or whether there are fiefdoms controlling them.

Often the people recruiting you will let you know very clearly who is who, who controls space, who controls money, and who controls promotions so that you can behave accordingly when you talk business with them. But members of your network with loyalty to you may also provide more insightful details about their personalities and the academic strings they pull and that pull them. As you go to conferences and study sections, you meet friends and future colleagues in an informal environment and can gather additional information from casual conversations on how things are going... little-known fact: when faculty get together for a drink/dinner most of what we do is complain about funding and other work things.

Because if my network, there were multiple people I could talk to honestly about my needs and my fears and who could give pointed advice. In addition, they could introduce me to their friends within the intended institution who could provide insider information. Surprisingly, without any news of my job search getting back to the relevant stakeholders in my institution (though some colleagues peripheral to me were contacted by their networks to investigate about me). This ability to be stealthy may not always be the case and it is entirely your choice how far you spread the word that you are looking. It depends on how afraid you are of your institution finding out and whether you are tenured or now. However, I highly recommend that you spread it with everyone you trust since there could be options popping up left and right. You use can your network broadly once the interview process gets serious (the second visit) and you need to find information about individuals you have met who could be in the position to make your life easier or harder and about individuals who have left.  Everyone always puts their best face forward during interviews and no university is perfect, so you need to know whether a place is worth the time and aggravation of moving a lab. One great benefit of a mid-career transition is that you can take your time. You should use it wisely.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The life of a double agent on the academic job market

This was written last Spring as interviews started getting serious, but of course I couldn't talk about it....

Academic job transitions take a long time! When I applied for my first faculty position, I started sending out applications in September, interviewed January through April and accepted a job at the end of May for the following April. 19 months, including almost a year after having signed an offer and waiting for admin processing, grant transfers, and lab construction. It was stressful, but I loved most of it. After the initial dreadful wait for someone to invite you for an interview, academic visits were a whirlwind of meetings, talks, and dinners. I'm an extrovert and truly enjoy interviewing. I got to talk to a lot of people about my science and I got to hear about their science. I also got to see different universities and departments, and I got to imagine myself there in a whole new life. While I was waiting to move, I was in the best situation possible: I had the prized academic job and I could still mess around in my postdoc lab with my friends spending someone else's money.

The second time is much different. Mostly because nobody at my institution or in my lab knows. It's the first time that none of my bosses or colleagues are expected to write me recommendation letters or act as references. Things that used to be open, like practices for job talks and chalk talks have been hidden on weekends and behind closed doors. I have been disappearing for interviews without much explanation or with some random excuse. I have a great network of local friends and colleagues outside my institution who have been phenomenal in helping me prep. But as much as I still really enjoy interviewing and I am stoked about the options available to me, the secrecy has been incredibly difficult to bear.

I have wanted to come clean many times, sometimes out of anger or frustration, and other times because I want my trainees to know what is going on. Everyone I talk to recommends I stay quiet until I have an offer I am willing to accept. I have seen friends be open about how much they hate their current situation and tell their chair they want to leave, and that generated a lot of animosities. Moreover, I still don't have tenure and if nothing pans out, I will still have to go up next year and will need the department to support me and the school to think I want to stay forever. But differently from the "real world" outside of academia, my job search, negotiations, and transition can take months or years. My lab has to keep going and publishing and I don't want them to feel uncertain about their employment until I know what is going to happen. I take on teaching responsibilities I may not be able to fulfill, and I am involved in discussions about future planning I have limited interest in, but I have to remain present in my department like nothing will happen. At the same time, I must appear excited about new positions, but not desperate, while being sufficiently aloof to obtain the best start-up package possible.  If I am not given a great shot at success in a new university there is no reason for going out of the frying pan into the fire.

Don't get me wrong. I am complaining, but not really complaining. I am incredibly excited about this transition and I am getting better and better at this double agent life. There is so much relief in seeing a light at the end of a very long tunnel and in seeing that so many efforts may be rewarded. I just hadn't anticipated how emotionally taxing this could be and wanted to share the struggle with so many I know are going through the same thing. This job is amazing and sucks at the same time.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Changing institution as a mid-level faculty: a primer

I truly realized I was a New PI no more when I started looking for jobs 5 years in my tenure track. I wrote last year about whether the pre-tenure job search is a thing and it seems to depend on the university. I don't think it can ever hurt if you are in a position of strength, i.e. you are sure you will get tenure, and it may also help show your worth if you are borderline, but it could be riskier if nobody bites and word gets out.

I wanted to check what was out there because I wanted different resources for my research program and some key people had left my current institution. Overall, I was very excited to have options to explore, so I want to share some tips about what worked for me. While similar to what it takes to get your first job, moving later has a few added advantages and problems.

1) Everything is different the second time around. I hadn't realized how different the job search experience would be as a mid-career faculty. I'm one of those weird people who love interviewing because I'm really outgoing and I truly enjoy talking science all day long and seeing what other people are doing. This time because I had a job and I knew exactly what another faculty job would entail, a lot of the pressure of was gone and most of my focus was on information gathering. I was treated like a colleague, not a newbie that had to be tested on whether they could actually run a lab. I could have open and frank conversations, and ask pointed questions on resources and administrative support. I could truly look at options for collaborations and new projects because I don't have to "establish myself" to get my own grants and I can think about multi-PI grants and expansion of my research program. Instead of standing on a ledge and jumping hoping that someone will catch you, it was more like shopping for a rocket. Will this place get me where I want to go?

2) Use your network for intelligence gathering and sponsorship. After you've run a lab for a few years, you know what it takes, you know what you need to make your life easier, and you know what kind of resources must be available for you to thrive. The easiest transition options may come from colleagues, friends, and collaborators who can sponsor you within the department and give you honest information about the inner workings of the institution. You should come up with a checklist of expertise, facilities, and services you need and make sure they are in place. You should also reach out to people you know well and have them forward your CV around to their chair or search committees if there are positions opening. There are places with pots of money for "opportunity hires" especially targeted to women and minorities that can provide start-up money even if an official search is not underway.

3) Money makes everything easier. A new research grant is like a disco ball hanging over your head. You're bright, shiny, and fun. The best time to look is after you get your first big grant or right after you get the second. You will be bringing 3-4 years of funding which will likely offset a large portion of the start-up you will command. If you have any interest in moving, this is the time to look. If you are the end of a grant, you will be less attractive and the university may want to wait until renewal.

4) Apply even if you don't feel ready. As a counter to #2, you don't have to wait until the perfect time to apply, since you don't know what the university is looking for. You can ask around, see what's available and circulate your CV. You'll have a sense of the different places doing research in your field and probably already have favorites. Even if they don't pick you right away, you will 1) get feedback and 2) put your work out there so that places which would be a good fit know who you are. I started applying before I had my R01 when I saw positions in places I knew would be good for me. I knew multiple people there and I thought I'd put my name in the hat in case someone saw it and could mention me to others who would remember me in the future. I was thrilled when one school invited me for an interview without a grant and was not surprised when they scheduled the interview after my study section met. They bet on me which was very impressive. Would things have moved any further if I hadn't gotten the grant? Probably not, but I would have had a chance to talk to them and start a relationship for future recruitment.

5) Remember you know what you're doing and now you're worth more. I didn't quite appreciate at the beginning that my associate professor start-up was supposed to be bigger than an assistant professor's. I went through my budget spreadsheet from my previous search and added new equipment I needed and the personnel I wanted to do all the cool things I had outlined in my chalk talk. After having to make my projects smaller and more focused for the R01s, developing a big picture chalk talk which would let my vision shine was such a joy! But what did I need to actually get that done? So I made a wish-list and got to a new number, knowing fully well that with the new lab discounts I could negotiate a bit and also stretch that number to complete a couple of pilot projects. The best advice I ever got was "Know what you need and what you want. Negotiate for what you want and don't settle for less than you need." I had a chance to dream big and as I was adding things, I shot for the stars.

6) Make them feel you fill a hole. As I was practicing my chalk talk, a friend who's a senior scientist said "You must make them realize that there is a hole in their department they didn't even know they had. That you can fill it and that they can't let you get away". I laughed as it sounded too much like dating, but he wasn't wrong. This is easier done if the chalk talk is on the second visit and you had a chance to meet people to figure out the needs of the different faculty. However, the idea is to think of multi-PI grants and program project grants that could stem from your interactions with the existing faculty and outline how these could dovetail with your work. If this exercise comes easy and you can find multiple synergies, this is also a good sign that the institution would be a good fit.

7) Evaluate risk vs. benefit of a move. In the end, unless you are at risk of not getting tenure or are fleeing a toxic environment, you will be in a position of power. You have a job and you can continue to do what you've been doing, so a move is only worth it if the benefits outweigh the downtime and having to learn the quirks of a whole new system. The money and/or perks that are offered must make your excited about starting a new adventure and confident that you will succeed. Mid- to late-career negotiations can stretch for a long time. You can request multiple visits for you and your trainees, and you can delve into the administrative details with the deans and facilities. You are a colleague, you know how things work, and you may want to minimize the chances you will have to move again. Be honest and straight with them if you need to take your time.

Maybe 8) Negotiate a retention package with your current uni. It is likely that you are attractive to other places, you are also a valued member of your institution. They will have spent a considerable amount of money in setting up your lab in the first place and have been counting on indirect costs from your grants to keep going. By leaving, you are not only removing a colleague, but you are also disrupting their teaching operation and taking away current and future earnings. Once you have an offer in hand, you are in good shape to go to your current uni and see what they can offer in return. You may be uncertain about moving and may have a wish-list of things that they could give you to make you stay. They may be dismissive and you will be certain it's time to go. But it's still advisable to "play nice", since you will need to negotiate to move your equipment and people, and will need to stay a few months before you can leave.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Change is hard...

As the new year starts the looming possibility of moving to a different university is stirring a lot of feelings and not all of them good. In general, the idea of changing everything (city, home, friends, colleagues) once again is weighing on me. I wake up in the middle of the night full of questions: Do I really want to do it? Do I want to risk everything I have built to start over? What if it doesn't work out? What if I'm making a mistake? Why don't I just adapt and stay put?

A transition out of a postdoc is usually a given unless you're in the very lucky situation to be hired as a staff scientist in a wealthy lab. A transition from a faculty position to another is an opportunity and a risk. I know so much more now than I knew during my first round of job interviews. I know how things work and I know what could go wrong. I also know how fickle the academic environment can be, with leadership and rules changing seemingly with no rhyme or reason in the pursuit of "excellence" and tuition/grant dollars. Why change? It's a question I had to answer over and over again at every meeting in my interviews "You're doing so well. Why do you want to leave?"

The answer cannot be the real one, though I assume the reason is implicit. Thet I feel like a round peg squeezed into a square hole, that I just don't "fit", and that my current uni is not the place for me to thrive. My colleagues are great and they are wonderful people. I'm in a great city where I have built a good group of friends. But 1) I feel my expertise doesn't jive with the people around me and that my trainees and I are terribly isolated from my field so that we can't grow anymore, and 2) I want to move closer to "home" where most of my established personal support network is.

As I weigh the pros and cons everything is possible, the best outcomes and the worst outcomes mix up. I wish we weren't trained in considering all possible outcomes and pitfalls since life is not judged by an NIH reviewer. In the end, I have to go with my gut and trust the feeling that what I'm doing is right for me. I've learned a lot from this first faculty experience and I have grown enormously as a person, as a scientist, and as a leader. I need to trust my judgment and know that I will be able to handle everything life will throw at me...

I have not posted much in 2018, but that doesn't mean that I haven't written down my thoughts as I was going through the job search process, hoping this will be helpful for others in the same situation. There is really no rulebook for mid-career transitions, but I started putting together some advice and several posts on what I went through.

A primer for mid-career faculty transitions
On keeping quiet as you interview for a new job
Networking for mid-career faculty transitions

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Is resilience the name of the game in academia? Part 3: Sophie is keeping both her kids, b!tches!

A year ago I wrote about the struggle to keep different projects going in my lab. I've been working on two separate and related lines of work that fit into the grander scheme of my lab. I like variety, and started with one scientific identity and then developed another. I kept both projects funded through my postdoc and at the beginning of my independent career, but it has been hard to keep them going lately.

Everyone was telling me to drop my original work and focus on the new one. Maybe it's silly, but it felt much like a failure. So, I threw a Hail Mary and pushed as hard as I could to sent out both R01 grants back to back...not quite twins in the same cycle as in my original plan to go for two R01s as a new investigator, but Irish twins. You see, if you submit as a New Investigator (NI), your grant remains in the NI pile for review even if the previous one was funded. I really wanted to make sure I sent something to the NIH in February because I heard that magical things happen in September/October when the fiscal year ends.

I almost didn't make it.

The grant just wasn't gelling and everyone's recommendations were going against my instincts. I decided to trust the coaching I was getting from colleagues in the field, and follow my PO's suggestions. If my PO had to choose to push for this grant, he needed to see that I listened to his advice. By the end, I was so exhausted, confused, and dejected waiting for the previous R01 to get reviewed on the same day the new R01 was due. One of my friends had to come to stay with me and watch me write. For a while, I didn't look at the grant after I submitted it. I wasn't sure if it was just word salad.

Then everything turned around. I found that the first R01 was going to be funded in the Spring. In July the second R01 was scored 1% from the payline! The NIH said that wasn't good enough, and I put on my big girl pants for the resubmission as an established investigator. But then, in an FY18 rebudgeting miracle the payline was changed! I didn't need to resubmit! And now everything will be funded again. I can't even express the joy at the idea of the science that we will get to do. The sense of wholeness and possibility.

I love and hate the emotional rollercoaster that comes with this job. But now I have 5 more years to keep going and do some very fun science. As we approach the holiday season I have been so thankful for this twist of fate, for my lab, for all others who have helped and supported me. It took a while to internalize this success after so many years of struggles, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel. And now I get to have fun at my job again!

I wish that 2019 will bring the same joy and awesome science to all of you.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Time management, flexibility and communication during academic training

This week I half-jokingly tweeted something that got a lot of attention and some negative responses.

Some PI's sympathized, and others described the sentiment in the tweet was unfair to trainees and indicated poor time management. As all this was going on, I got my data, which was an Excel spreadsheet from which I was hoping to make a figure, and a friend was frantically waiting for a fellowship draft that was due that day from one of her people. To my defense, if I ask for data, I usually do so with at least 24-48hr notice and only ask for primary data I have already seen so that I can make the figure myself in my color scheme. This I expect to be perfectly reasonable.

In general, I find myself a lot more frequently in my friend's situation with trainees and students asking for things with very limited time to actually get them done. The struggle is always whether to turn this into a teachable moment and don't drop the other 10 things I need to do, or to deal with the last minute request and resign postponing my own work. Unless the problem is egregious and needs too much work (i.e. a grant so poorly written that cannot be submitted), many of the PIs I know will step in and take care of it. Often they will also try to provide some time-management training for the trainee.

I find that tweets out of context are usually interpreted by the reader based on their own experience and several responders replied with very valid concerns that are important to talk about in the context of the mentor-trainee relationship and any supervisor-employee situation. Students and postdocs mostly have to worry about their own projects, but PIs and managers, in general, respond to a variety of stakeholders: to name a few, their trainees in the lab, their students in the classroom, collaborators, administrators, funding agencies, and the greater scientific community requiring their service for reviewing papers and grants. Below are considerations trainees must have to become more empowered in their position.

1) Don't feel compelled to say "Yes" if you cannot deliver. Beside the fact of whether you already have a slide ready that you showed at lab meeting and you can retrieve in 5 minutes, my request above touches on a very critical issue which is the ownership of one's time and the ability to say "No". As a PI it took me a while to realize that sometimes people said "Yes" to please me, but are then too overwhelmed or stressed to follow through. For my own time-management and planning, I would 1,000 times prefer to be told "This cannot be done" or "I will not be able to meet that deadline for X and Y reasons". I always try to frame tasks based on the timeline of the trainee, but some PIs do not care or have no concept of how long it takes to do something. It is always better to have a clear discussion defining the timeline for deliverables and how long it's going to take to get things done. PIs may have expectations based on how long it takes them to do stuff and trainees may have no experience in planning. You think the PI is unreasonable and they think you are unreasonable, but many times this is a communication issue.

2) Don't underestimate the time it takes to do something. This is a corollary. Nowadays I can write an abstract in the 20 minutes before a deadline, I know it will take a trainee at least a week. When defining deadlines with your PI think of the time it will take you to do what you are asked to do and double it! If the deadline is tight and you are worried, ask for advice on how to handle it. If they realize you cannot do it and need it done, the PI can provide help and/or redirect resources.

3) This is your time to be selfish, but you are still in the real world. When I was applying for PhD positions, a PI told me this was going to be my time to be selfish, and I didn't really get it. My trainee years were the time when I could just follow my curiosity and go where my intellect would take me. Then I didn't have to respond to all the stakeholders listed above and jump from deadline to deadline imposed by multiple exterior forces on a weekly basis. In a non-academic job, you are requested to do the bidding of your managers, and your managers are compelled to do the bidding of their bosses and the company. An entire project may be dropped at a day's notice or you may be pulled as a pinch hitter to help complete someone else's task. You will sometimes not be given any reason for the change... Being change-agile and flexible are very important qualities in fast-paced environments like pharma, consulting, or publishing. So, you may be only want to work on your project, but still need to learn to function under pressure to respond to the needs of others while clearly communicating your needs and timeline.

4) Ask for training and mentorship. There are approaches that are obvious to me because I was trained to do them or they match my way of thinking, but these may not come naturally to other people. However, it is not immediately clear to me when someone wouldn't think the same way I do. There is nothing more disruptive to a project when someone says they have understood something and then they go off and do something else. Nobody knows everything, and you will always learn something new if you ask for an explanation and follow-up with questions or a summary of the conversation as you understood it. Turning a discussion into a teaching moment with a phrase like "Can you explain this to me? I am not familiar with the concept" can also help defuse conflict and lessen your boss' irritation if things are not getting done. Most academic scientists enjoy teaching and will switch to "teacher-mode" to make sure you understand.

5) You are ultimately responsible for your project and career transitions. To move forward in any career you need to advocate for yourself and be proactive. You must take ownership of your work and ask for the training you need. There is no one size fits all mentoring method and no boss (no matter how empathic) will be able to read your mind. By being open in your discussions about progression and feedback you can define the working relationship you want. Realize that this may not be the way your PI mentors and you may need to find a compromise and look for additional mentoring with senior postdocs or other PIs. If you need time, resources, and help, you must ask and clearly articulate why.

A PhD or a postdoc is a tricky job situation because trainees are treated like employees or students depending on the whim of the university or PI...and this is a whole can of worms I will not open right now. However, in both cases, they are temporary positions that are supposed to help you advance in your career, so learning transferable professional skills should always be in the back of your mind to make the most of your time.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Deciding which university is the right fit for you

I have been spending a lot of time recently thinking about how universities differ and about how to
find the right place for you. Like any other job the work environment and the culture will determine how you fit and how happy you are. I have been talking to so many friends grappling with the same questions that I decided to jot down some ideas that may help others in their struggles or their choices.

In a way or another, universities are corporations for higher-education and that they would do anything in their power to protect their reputation and appeal for students, including throwing their faculty under the bus or swiping problems under the rug. They are companies like many others, with often the difference that their products are teaching and research, and that their administration may not run quite right no matter how fancy they are. Being a great scientist and being a manager are two different things, and while you may be good at both, not everyone is. In addition, once you see how the sausage is made and the money is distributed at the Hunger Games of the Deans, you realize that even the best intentions can be foiled by institutional politics and that academia is most certainly not a "family"...

So, how do you find the right place, or survive until you have another chance to find it? Being on the job market as a faculty or postdoc can be quite scary and very "impostor syndrome"-inducing. You are terrified that nobody will want you, and if someone says "yes" you may feel obliged to take the job you can, even if you are not quite sure it's the right one. You might also think it is the right one, and circumstances will change due to the aforementioned Hunger Game results or some other issue.

The most basic criterion to be met is operations: a smooth process in grant submission and management, hiring, ordering and facilities including animal handling if necessary. I haven't heard of a single place that gets a five-star rating in all these things. If you know if this unicorn university, please mention it in the comments...or keep it to yourself so that nobody else can apply. Nobody tells you, but the single greatest source of delays in your scientific progress is having to spend a large portion of your time dealing with admin issues, and these issues hindering the work of your trainees. Plus, the possible development of multiple ulcers. Admins are critical and while there may be no place where they are all efficient, the efficient ones will save your life and help navigate the difficulties of academic administration. Depending on the needs of your research program, you need to find out as much as you can about the different aspects of operations. Ask everyone you meet and look for a pattern of consistency or elusiveness in their answers. Also, figure out if anyone is doing something similar to what you want to do and talk to them, because other people may have no idea of obstacles you may encounter.

Then, as long as you can get work done, there is the scientific environment. Are there people thinking about the same questions you are thinking about? Or tangential questions you would like to explore? Or questions you have never thought about, but sound really cool? Is there scientific and technical support around for you and your trainees? Most new PIs will tell you that their job is very lonely. Often lab heads are hired to fill a specific hole in the departmental expertise. Sometimes they dovetail nicely with other people already in place, sometimes not. The loneliest situation will arise if you are in a place where your expertise is not present and not understood, and where you cannot speak to anyone in depth about your research. Conferences, collaborations, and publications will become the only source of information on advances in the field, and you may be the only expert to provide technical help for your lab, which may slow innovation. There are multiple ways to adapt, such as developing extensive collaborations or changing research direction, but again, asking in advance and knowing what you are getting yourself into always helps.

And then there's culture. I may be hypersensitive, but I find that the academic culture of an institution as a whole defines how happy you'll be as a scientist there and will also define the scientific environment. In a siloed system, the culture of the individual department may be enough. By culture I mean the university's spoken and unspoken value systems. Do they claim to value research? Do they think research increases their prestige, but would rather not pay for it? Do they claim to value diversity? Do they claim to value collaboration and interdisciplinary team science? Do they want to subvert the status quo and hire scientists doing high risk/high reward projects? Do they have a focused mission (cure cancer, solve state-specific problems, etc)? Do they want their names on high impact journals no matter what? Do they aim to be a global or national leader? All these questions are part of different cultures I encountered, and everyone may elicit a specific reaction in you. You may be inspired, or annoyed, but overall how they answer will define whether you would like to be there or not. Even if the answers are great, the next step is to figure out if they are actually embodied by the employees, i.e. the faculty and the administrators. Every single place has a mission and vision crafted by a media office with upper-level dean-types. This doesn't mean the rest of the institution has bought in, and changing institutional culture can take a decade. On a 6-9 year tenure clock, you don't have a decade. Again, look for consistency in answers, but not so much consistency that everyone is giving you a memorized version of the mission statement.

If you found your magic spot, enjoy it. If not, you are most likely wondering how much to compromise and whether the job will provide a launching pad for another job. People in academia move around all the time and you don't owe the university anything, especially if they cannot provide a suitable environment for research. But the grass is not always greener. A university can support your career, be neutral, or be toxic. I am discovering much in this job is about compromise and being pragmatic, so if you are in a neutral environment, you want to think things through. If it's toxic, leaving is a no-brainer.  The moment you get money, you have the option to search again and compare and contrast, but it's worth beginning to plot your escape the moment you decide you may want to leave. All information on operations, environment, and culture can be more easily obtained from friends and colleagues at other institutions. As your circle expands you can leverage these contacts for new opportunities. It may take a while for the right position at the right place to open up, and you want to be in the know. The more you go give seminars and meet other scientists at meetings, the clearer it will become what is a good fit...and also what is realistic, since that unicorn university doesn't exist.

Photo credit: By Diliff [CC BY-SA 3.0  ( or GFDL (], from Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Networking for job transitions in academia (and out of it)

The #HiddenCurriculum hashtag has emerged on Twitter and reminded many of us who have been at this job a while how students and postdocs often are not taught the critical workplace skills beyond bench work.

One of the most important skills for any job is networking. While I have written before on how to network (here and here), in preparation for conference and job-search season, I want to focus this post on networking for job transitions. Any job transition within academia and from academia to other businesses can be made faster and more successful by networking to generate contacts and leads. Networking and reaching out to people out of the blue is often very scary for students, but there are multiple principles that can make it easier and even enjoyable.

1) Networking is a long game. Building a large network and identifying the people who will help you and support you over your career can take years. As you change universities and often countries, you will naturally build relationships with a variety of people. The expectation that you have to generate a large number of contacts in one sitting will only generate anxiety and a feeling of failure. While it may happen that you are in the "right place at the right time" to meet the person who is looking for someone with your skills and background, strong work relationships are mostly developed over time. So, relax, accept that you will have other chances and realize that even if you get to have 1 or 2 meaningful conversations at a conference or networking event, you have succeeded. Follow up with an email saying something like "Nice talking to you. Hope we can keep in touch/meet again", find them on LinkedIn, and build connections little by little.

2) Targeted networking requires planning. You are interested in a job with someone in particular and know they will be speaking at your university or at a meeting you are attending. Join the lunch or ask to be in the room if your PI is on their schedule, or email them in advance of the conference to set a time to speak. If they are in your PI's network, ask for an introduction, especially if this is someone outside of academia. Prepare a few questions: "Are they looking for postdocs?" "What is it like to work at their university/company?" "What are the characteristics of a successful applicant in their field?" "What is the faculty search committee looking for?" Have a short 2-5 min pitch about you and what you are passionate about that relates to their job (e.g. your research, your interest in drug development, your passion for science policy...) Remember to thank them for their time.

3) Network with your peers. It's perfectly fine to hang out with students and postdocs at conferences and create a network of "conference buddies". You will see the same people from labs with similar interests over and over again. You will be networking without even knowing you are doing it. My conference buddies from grad school are now professors in many different universities or executives in pharma and government. In addition, if you are scared of reaching out to the big professor or they are not coming to a particular meeting, you can go see their trainees' posters and chat with them about their work, the lab, and how much you would like to join. You will get insider information about the lab environment and possibly a ringing endorsement "Hey, I met this awesome student at the meeting and they want to apply!". And voila', your application is at the top of the pile.

4) Sit at the table. One of the biggest benefits of a network is information, and information can be obtained even if you are sitting quietly or asking just one question at lunch. Table networking events where experts in different topics sit at thematic tables are now a staple of many meetings and university career development events. Go sit at the tables you care about, ask questions, or listen to the conversation. You can always reach out to the speakers afterward because that's what they're there for. Similarly, go to lunches with seminar speakers, and sit at those terrifying tables filled with big-wigs at conferences. Protip: those bigwigs have probably been conference buddies since grad school and they may be shooting the breeze about what's going on in their current labs, universities, or reminiscing. Everything they say is information about them, their current and past institutions. Those of them with a mentoring bone in their body will ask you about yourself and your work. If they don't, that's information also about who cares for trainees. A caveat is if they are having a working lunch to discuss a shared grant or paper and are too stressed to interact with the young'uns.

5) Mi network es su network. Make use of other people's networks to expand your reach. This tends to happen organically in academia, but it's particularly important if you are interested in a job outside the ivory tower and want to gather information and contacts. Homo sapiens is a social species and an introduction to show that you are "good people" goes a long way to get you a response. In any job, internal recommendations have a higher success rate in getting interviews and positions. Many companies give employees a bonus upward of $1,000 for recommending someone who ends up being hired. If someone on the inside can vouch that you are a good fit with the organizational culture and have the right skills, it will make things easier for you. Use your friends and colleagues who have moved into the university or industry you care about and ask them to put you in touch with others. If you are just starting and do not know anyone, ask your PI or other senior scientists. Remember, only 15% of science PhDs stay in academia, so we all know A LOT of people doing different things.

6) Find the other loners. This is all nice and dandy, but you hate small talk and tend to blend with the wallpaper at parties. You're in luck! A lot of scientists feel the same way. Scan the networking event for other wallflowers or the lunch room for that almost empty table. Go over: "Hi, I'm [name]" If you feel like it, commiserate about how hard it is to network, connect over your shared hatred of small talk, or just talk science. You have immediate access to that person's entire network. It is entirely possible they are a lonely journal editor and if you treat them as a human being, you will receive insider information on their journal and perpetual invitations to review. Repeat over and over again, until after a decade you find yourself with a network of hundreds of people and are confused because you're such a loner.

Going to meetings will soon become a joy and creating new contacts will go a lot faster. I sometimes have turned it into a game like a scavenger hunt: I have to talk to 20 new people and follow-up with 5 contacts that can provide job leads/collaborations. Set the numbers with your friends and who gets more business cards/emails wins!

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Project Management in Academia 101: Getting people invested into the project

The thing about managing a project, any type of project, is that you cannot do it without the people who are actually doing the work. You can plan every step in detail and assign specific tasks and deadlines, but everything can come tumbling down because of lack of interest or miscommunication. Even when you're running an independent project, unless you work in a separate room with your own equipment focusing techniques you perform alone, you will need other people to help or provide services. In academic research, like in any business, personnel will always be the variable that makes or breaks your lab.

I have written extensively on how to hire a few years ago: some of those pieces are still timely and I wish I had taken the time to re-read them recently (herehere and here). Briefly, in an ideal world, you want lab members who are smart, engaged, passionate, and self-directed. Drive and intellectual curiosity are qualities that beat expertise in a job candidate, and in a training environment, independence and passion for a specific topic can be cultivated. But as I like to put it, if there is no wood, you cannot light a fire!

The issue of motivation fascinated me since I was a grad student. One night a new hotshot PI showed up in our lab, while a postdoc and I were working away and asked us "Why are you here? Your boss has been gone for hours and you're here. Everyone in my lab is gone and I'm here..." Our simple answer was "I don't know....we have experiments to do?" There are multiple reasons why someone would burn the midnight oil. Some have to do with carrots or sticks, but what would make someone WANT to work and do it happily?

Before I even started my lab I read "Drive" by Daniel Pink which I think is a necessary read for anyone interested in motivation. To foster workplace happiness and engagement, Pink proposes a motivation paradigm based on three principles: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. People want Autonomy: to be in control of their lives and of how they do their job. They also want Mastery: to be really good at something and to keep trying to achieve our goals. And finally, Purpose (a greater ideal to aspire to) brings it all together. Studies have shown that once the basic economic needs are met, Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose always trump financial gain.*

As a scientist, this made sense to me, since this is exactly why I do what I do. I am (mostly) in charge of my work and of my schedule, I love solving complex scientific problems with the final goal to help mankind better understand and treat neurodevelopmental disorders. Purpose is the hook and I find it's the way to get lab members engaged in a project starting with undergraduates and interns. If you do not give them the bigger reason, sometimes the slog of troubleshooting is too much to bear. Also, a lot of science tasks are boring, but still need to get done, and knowing why they are important helps get through them. Mastery gives a sense of accomplishments, and I tend to match projects to the techniques that someone is good at or would love to learn.

Sure, but in a small starting lab, how do you get Autonomy? What if you have someone picking up or joining an existing project? Or you need someone to focus away from what they are doing for the own project and help with something else? Again Mastery and Purpose come into play where clearly explaining the reasons why this is important and why a certain expertise is needed can get employees to buy in. "Ownership" of the research question and of the experiments is one of the most important aspects of getting students and trainees invested in the research.**

Finally, in a great piece on research motivation that touches some of the same topics, Uri Alon also discusses "social connectedness" as a motivation tool. We all know how much better it is to be in a work environment where everyone is invested in your success. While I don't buy the "My lab is a family" argument, I think a manager should strive to obtain a harmonious work environment by keeping conflicts in check, setting clear rules, and make employees feel listened to and appreciated. The right "vibe" in the lab will make people want to come to work.

* Daniel Pink's newest book is When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing and talks a lot about when you should perform certain tasks depending on your circadian rhythm. I'll review when I'm done.

** As a disclaimer, even as a small lab I give everyone their own project which makes me much slower than I should be in publishing. I always had complete autonomy in my work, and I cannot bear to force someone else to do otherwise, but this may not be the best solution for everyone and many trainees may like working together and benefit from it.

Long time no see...

Three months have probably been the longest time away from this blog since I started it. It's not that I
didn't want to write, but life has been so busy that time has gone by quickly. I barely had time to deal with social media, and my limited free time had to be devoted to other projects. I've been lurking on Twitter, catching only a whiff of the most recent scientific and political controversies. It's time to regroup and recenter.

There is a lot to talk about that I cannot disclose, yet. So many awesome and exciting things have been happening after the horrible couple of years I just had, and I've been buzzing around. I promise I'll start writing posts that will be released soon. I have been meaning to finish the Project Management series and I want to do that first. As people are posting about their new faculty jobs it seems like a good idea to provide some insight into managing a group. There is still a lot to say about resilience, grant writing, fighting impostor syndrome, and establishing yourself. Stay tuned, since more time to write is opening up at the horizon.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Project Management in Academia 101: Managing your own project vs. Managing a lab

After discussing why you should care about Project Management (PM) in academia and that there are multiple PM techniques available, we can start getting down to business talking about possible applications. There is a big leap between managing an individual project and managing a lab. If you start using PM techniques early, it will make it easier to juggle managing multiple projects later, or just changing your role and transitioning into a different type of PM role in pharma or the private sector.

Managing Yourself

Let's start with managing your own project. If you have read the previous posts, you already should have some ideas on how to apply PM techniques to your daily work. If you haven't read them, click on the links above and come back in a bit.

If you are a student or postdoc, managing your project is one of the most difficult things you need to learn, often through trial and error. While PIs must have some elements of PM to hit all the deadlines necessary to submit papers, grants, and job applications for getting and keeping their jobs, most are not trained PMs and just expect you to figure stuff out like they did. Unless your boss is a total control freak that needs to double check everything, they will be ecstatic if you come up with a clear question and experimental plan (which includes deadlines for deliverables on their calendar). They will discuss ideas with you, then get off your back, tell you to ask for advice if you have any problems, and wait for the data to flow in. In some labs, especially in the US, the boss may just let you do whatever you want, and there you really need to know how to manage your time and experiments!

In the first post I outlined how to Initiate and Plan a project leading to a research paper and what are the necessary questions to ask yourself, but here I would like to delve a bit more in the mechanics of Executing and Monitoring. Because science is a recursive loop of experimenting, troubleshooting, and analyzing data leading to more experiments, the Agile PM approaches are a lot more adaptable as my guest blogger Duc Phan presented. Kanban, which is Duc's method of choice is a great place to start. Kanban meaning "card" in Japanese uses visual cues such as cards, diagrams or flowcharts to outline the project. Having tasks clearly ordered in "to be completed", "in process" and "done" is a great way to start and he discusses a great way to use the Trello software to do this here.

As you perform experiments, you need to think at two levels: 1) questions/hypotheses and 2) actual experiments. Anyone with some training can do tons of experiments, but one of the most important skills in science is to identify important questions and design the best experiments to answer them with appropriate controls. You will save yourself a lot of time and grief if you remain grounded in the big picture. So I recommend that you title cards with the question the experiments are going to answer, e.g. "What is the developmental expression profile of gene X?" "Does transcription factor Y repress activity of gene Z?". At the end you should have an image or a figure with data that answers the question, leading to other questions. Asana is another software that will allow you to organize experiments under specific headings. To get started you can also just print out an empty monthly calendar and plot out your month, or do a thorough job on Google Calendar in planning your weekly experiments. Blocking time for specific experiments and scheduling things around seminars, meeting and lectures, is one of the ways I figured out how to organize my day in grad school. What else can you do during that 2hr incubation?

This leads easily to a process we use in my lab to write papers which is also based on cards, but borrowed from screenwriting, which is storyboarding on index cards. Each piece of data/answer (graph or images) is pasted on an index card or printed out on a sheet of paper, then attached on a white board where we look at all the data to decide how to present the story. Experiments are rarely presented in chronological order in an article, and are often organized to fit a narrative. Some supporting data will end in the supplemental information and other data will need to be showcased in the first figure. Some data will be set aside because it may belong into a different paper. (Daily reminder on rigor: no data should be set aside because it contradicts the main hypothesis). By rearranging the cards in front of you, you will see how the data fits together in figures and where there are holes that need more work, leading to another round of traditional Plan/Execute/Monitor or agile Speculate/Explore/Adapt.
From Matt van dar Meer (U Waterloo)

Managing a lab

Once one moves into managing a lab, the requirements of the job often change dramatically. After the first few years time to do experiments declines, and you are balancing teaching, admin work, travel, writing grants and papers with tons of other random things you never thought could be part of your job. Deadlines come at you without interruption, and sometime without much warning. So there are two requirements now: managing your own job and managing everyone involved in the research which is people in the lab, collaborators and research administrators. I was reminded recently on Twitter that having a 5 year plan really comes in handy and I wrote about it a while ago. Briefly, plot out month by month your next 5 years: conferences, grant deadlines, desired paper submission deadlines, beginning/end of grants with progress reports, and everything else you need to get to the next level.

Then, your management style really depends on you and on your lab culture. In general, as a new investigator you will almost never be able to get postdocs that were just like you, so you will have to also budget substantial amounts of time for training and budget time for trainees to learn how to think on their own. While you may need to be patient at the beginning when you just want to tell them what to do and they ask for your opinion on everything, teaching to trust themselves and develop their own ideas, will pay you back in spades in the future when they decide to ignore you for a month because they need to get s--t done. As an advanced PM, it will be really up to you to move between traditional sequential Waterfall methods and recursive Agile methods depending on the project that needs to be completed and the stage it is at. One simple approach may be to have a separate project outline for each grant and then one for each manuscript that would fit into it.

I want to spend some time talking about Scrum. Scrum is a PM method that combines both traditional and agile concepts to get a project done in small parcels. The advantage is that there are both a long term goal, but also short term goals that give the group continuous sense of accomplishment. Each task is completed within a 2-4 week sprint which is managed sequentially like a traditional project. I find this particularly suitable when you rapidly need to generate preliminary data or when finishing a paper, because it adds a sense of urgency and focus. Responsibilities are divided between the Project Owner, Scrum Master, and Team. The Project Owner inititates and plans the project, but the Scrum Master is in charge of the sprints and of getting the Team going. You can easily imaging your Scrum Master to be a senior grad student or postdoc. I'm still working on really understanding how to adapt Scrum to the lab, but here is a nice little guide that can get you thinking.

Overall, having a plan and a general sense of whether the "lab machine" is humming or stalled will hopefully reduce your stress level and free time for other things you need to do as a leader, including going on vacation.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Project Management for Academia 101: an Introduction to Traditional Project Management and Agile Project Management

Guest post from Duc Phan, University of California, Irvine

I am currently a PhD candidate in biomedical sciences. I developed a keen interest in project management (PM) while working on my thesis project and have been an advocate for teaching/learning PM in academia. I’m planning to become certified as a project manager after I defend. These are some ideas that stemmed from my readings about PM.  

“What is a project?” 

“A project is a temporary endeavor with a beginning and an end and it must be used to create a unique product, service or result.” 

“Temporary” and “unique” are 2 important concepts here that affect how a project is managed. A project is temporary because it does not run forever, but has a beginning and an end. It is unique because it is not a routine work but set out to accomplish some specific goals. Once these goals are achieved, the project is completed. These 2 concepts are kind of confusing in academia, because we rarely think this way. We do our research, and we follow where the results lead. We keep chasing the lead, get excited about it, and tend to forget about everything else. We blur the line between a project and an operation (i.e. a routine thing), which makes it harder to manage. It just feels like a never-ending run, and everything is chaotic. 

If we think a project is temporary and unique such as one manuscript or an aim in a grant proposal, we will approach it differently. Because it is unique with specific goals, we need to define the scope, the outcomes, and the benchmark criteria (i.e. milestones). With that in mind, we can look at resources (i.e. budget) in hand to meet these requirements. And because a project has a beginning and an end, we need to plan a timeline accordingly. 

Traditional project management vs. Agile project management:  

Each project is unique, so there is no one-size-fit-all approach. However, there are formalized systems (with knowledge, skills, and tools) that have been tried and tested by professionals in different industries. It is generally accepted that they fall into 2 groups: 

Traditional project management (TPM), as in its name, is the basic and traditional method to manage a project. It’s also called Waterfall Model (or Waterfall Project Management), because it is structured in a linear, sequential order. TPM system and methodology stemmed from the heavy industries (e.g. manufacturing, construction) in the mid 50-60’s of the 20th century, and it is still a popular system today. 

TPM emphasizes on a clearly defined management plan to deliver project outcomes on-time and within a stringent budget. In the ideal TPM world, everything has to be planned out, documented, and followed according to the plan. As introduced in our first post, TPM breaks a project into 5 phases: Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring/Controlling, and Closing. In TPM ideal world, one phase must be completed before the next phase can start (i.e. You can’t plan a project without initiating it, you can’t execute a project without planning it, so on and so forth). In addition, any changes during execution (scope creep, schedule change, budget change) must be reviewed and approved by higher level management and related parties.

Let’s translate TPM concept to academic research. A good example of a straightforward waterfall project could be generating preliminary data for a grant and writing the grant. 

You decide to write an R01 proposal for the NIH (Initiating). This entails outlining 5 years of research in a large project with 2-3 Specific Aims/Hypotheses. In the Planning phase, you outline your aims and define whether you have all preliminary data to support your hypotheses and feasibility. You gather your lab personnel and assign one or more pieces of missing data to each person, giving them a specific deadline. You sort out details with the grants office to define which documents are needed when and who is going to do what, including documents needed from collaborators. You outline the project budget for all groups involved. You have a set of tasks spread across multiple people each with deadlines. Your lab starts working on the project (Executing), you oversee the process (Monitoring/Controlling). In a real waterfall scenario, you start writing the grant when the necessary data is obtained (more Executing). In reality, it’s probably in parallel as the data starts coming in. You prepare all documents needed and your grants office checks them (more Monitoring/Controlling). The grant is completed and submitted by the NIH deadline (Closing). 

The strength of TPM (and its skills/tools/techniques) is to keep a project on track. With clearly defined objectives and milestones to hit, you are less likely to wander around and waste your time/resources. TPM can work for PIs or heads of a research group to have a global view of a project and its related aspects (scope, time, budget/cost, human resources, risk, stakeholders, etc.). However, the weakness of TPM is that it takes a lot of advance planning and it is not as flexible to changes, which happens so much and so fast while doing exploratory research. 

Let’s explore the other end of the spectrum.       

Agile project management, as its name suggests, focuses on rapid and adaptive management. Agile itself is rather a concept/strategy, and there are several management systems that fall under this banner, including Scrum, Kanban, Lean, to name a few (here and here). Agile began in the software development industry, but has since becoming popular and overshadowing TPM. The motivation behind Agile is that TPM is too bulky and slow, thus cannot keep up with rapid changes of a project, especially in digital age.  

Instead of breaking down a project into 5 sequential stages where one phase has to finish before the next one starts in TPM, Agile management de-emphasizes rigid management structure, strict timeline, and documentations. Instead, it splits the project into small work packages (or features) that can be independently addressed, and deliver each one as steps toward the final project objectives. The goal is to carve out these work packages so you don’t necessarily have to do them in sequential order, nor they are hard to change. Agile divides and conquers small work package according to level of priority, available resources in hand (manpower, expertise, budget, facility…), and feedback from stakeholders (project sponsor, higher management, public…). Each package has a specific deadline and deliverables so that overall working in short bursts increases the feeling of accomplishment in the group. 

That doesn’t mean Agile is unorganized. Agile still have a framework with 5 phases: Envision, Speculate, Explore, Adapt, and Close. The project will iterate through the Speculate, Explore, and Adapt phases until all objectives are reached. Results and feedbacks will be evaluated after each cycle.  

Let’s translate Agile concept to academic research with a moonshot idea:  

Drug development is too slow right now (Fact: It could go up to 10 years) and the pre-clinical screening process is ineffective (Fact: 9 of 10 drugs fail Phase 2 trials or after, and about 2/3 is due to efficacy and toxicity issues), so I want to develop a new drug screening platform. I set out 6 months for a pilot study.

I envision that if I have something more similar to a human body to screen compounds in lab. It will be better than testing with cells on a petri dish.  So how should this look like? 

I start to speculate the features for this new assay based on prior knowledge, educational guessing, and imagination. It should mimic human vital organ structures and functions to certain level. It should have blood vessel and flow because I want to look at systemic drug delivery. At the same time, I want it to be cheaper than animal models and easy to handle, so I can screen a good number of compounds in lab. I am an expert in a few things here, and I know some colleagues on campus who might be able to help me out. I will need expertise in bio-engineering, anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and medicinal chemistry. Let’s gather everyone and cook up something!

We hold meetings and explore what it takes to get the features we sketched out. We come up with a list of experiments and their priorities. Some are doable within our expertise and in-house resources, while some are pretty challenging. But whatever, we will start doing stuff because it’s now or never. We decide what needs to be done to decide whether this is even feasible, divide the workload, and set out 4-week block for this round. 

After 4 weeks, we come up with the first iteration. It was much harder than we think, but we have something to test, and a list of issues/incomplete features. We start some testing to adapt our cooked-up Frankenstein to drug treatment. People mostly hate it (ouch, that hurts) but they give us a list of things they like/hate. We also realize that some original features that we thought are just overkilled and not practical. We repeat the Speculate-Explore-Adapt cycle again and again. 

After 6 months, we close the pilot study with version 6 of our Frankenstein and lessons learned. It’s obviously nowhere near what we envisioned, but we have come up with new ideas for developing different tissues in vitro and for promoting vascularization. 

As mentioned above, there are many Agile management systems like Scrum, Lean, Kanban, etc. Each has pros and cons depending on your project, but you can click here to explore the differences. 

My favorite is Kanban and it has been my go-to strategy. Kanban, "card" in Japanese, is a PM system implemented by Toyota in the 1950s, and has been widely adopted in the tech industry. The core of Kanban management strategy is using visual cues (i.e. cards) to keep track of tasks at different stages of a whole project. Kanban focuses on statuses rather than due dates to create a continuous workflow. I have written 2 blog posts on why I chose Kanban and how I use this method to manage my research project.

Recommended reading and resources:
The gold standard for TPM is the Project Management Body of Knowledge PMBOK Guide developed by the Project Management Institute (PMI).

PMI is the globally recognized organization that represents PM professionals and provides formal training/certification to project managers. It is not the only professional organization in the world, but it’s the most recognized, and its Project Management Professional (PMP) certification remains a standard for senior-level PM positions in the industry.

You can also read The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management (Fast Forward MBA Series) by Eric Verzuh and Agile Project Management: QuickStart Guide - The Simplified Beginners Guide To Agile Project Management (Agile Project Management, Agile Software Development, Agile Development, Scrum) by Ed Stark

Sunday, April 1, 2018

5 years on the tenure track

Sometimes I wonder what made me think that April 1 was a good start date for my faculty job! But here it is, the April Fool's PI once again. I just completed year 5.

As customary in this occasion I go back to my past lab-birthday posts which reflect on the year that passed and on plans for the new year (Y1, Y2, Y3, Y4). The historical memory of this blog is one of the things I love the most (after my readers) because it give me prospective on my efforts and feelings. I am very glad that everything I put in place last year allowed me to survive this year. It was touch and go there for a minute, but the lab is good and back on its footing again. The new hires are great and after taking the time to get everyone up and going in 2017, things are moving along, papers are getting out and being published or in revision, we have cool new data, and we finally got our much needed R01 funding!

I have reflected a lot about what resilience means in academia during this process. The first month after getting the R01, when people were coming into my office to hug me or high-five me, I was stunned. I felt I had just come back from war. I was injured and psychologically devastated and there was no reason to cheer. A feeling I found so many of my friends who had been in the same boat shared. I don't know if it's true that the NIH throws you a bone at the very last second before drowning, but I have definitely heard of single-digit percentile R01s born out of extreme desperation.

Then a friend who is more senior mentioned that when you get your first R01 is when you realize you will survive, when you know that people trust you. And this is true. I still remember the joy of getting my very first grant as a postdoc, the sense of accomplishment and belonging "I can do this!" The disconnect in the past couple of years was that I knew I could do the job, but study sections didn't believe me, so I had to figure out how to convince them.

I feel like I am still recovering, but the outlook is a lot more optimistic. I made sure I had vacations planned to clear my head in case of both good or bad outcomes, and I'm ready to get back in the ring. This year I want to close this first chapter and really think about the future and what I can do with this lab now that there is some security for the next 5 years. There are still 2 more R01s in the pipeline...and I want to recapture the wonder and excitement I had on Day 1 of my faculty job.
I can also spend more time to focus on my other passion which is professional development for young scientists. After the Project Management series is done there will be more things in the pipeline.