Sunday, October 20, 2013

The New PI hits the 6th month slump: how do you keep proactive?

Caspar David Friedrich - Der Monch am Meer (detail)
I have been quiet for a while because I did not know what to say. Six months ago, the day before I started my new job I was full of excitement (here), but now I barely feel I can keep my head above water. It is somewhat impossible to describe the tsunami that hits you when you start running a lab: 1) the navigation of a completely new administrations with its quirks and habits, 2) ordering, including choosing things, getting quotes, keeping track of orders, generating relationships with vendors, 3) hiring new people, 4) training new people, sometimes multiple new people at the same time, 5) managing renovations, animal rooms, animal protocols and orders, 6) reconciling budgets, 7) writing papers, 8) writing grants, 9) developing new relationships with colleagues and collaborators, and last but not least 10) deciding where the lab must go and where to place your bets on your future and on the future of everyone you hired. You are hit from every corner, every day with some kind of issue or emergency and because everything is new to you, every decision has to be pondered. Some days I literally feel like I cannot breathe.

The lab is somewhat moving, grinding away slowly, finding a rhythm between having everything we need to get things going and doing experiments. A couple of proposals are out and papers are still lagging. I am exhausted most of the time: most days I have no time to read or write or even think and get home late at night in a stupor. I try to continue to do busy work on the laptop as I watch TV, but not much gets done. I started taking vitamin B and drinking caffeine again to get me going in the morning. It's the 6th month slump: when you still remember how things were moving at a steady clip before and you feel completely enveloped in molasses. It is also vital to keep moving because things need to get done and you can see that sooner or later you will get there. But you are questioning everything.

You do not want to talk to people because they will think you are weak and not worthy, so you weather the bad days and rest a little on the good days. Then you talk to your peers and everyone is going through this or has experienced it at some point. Someone warned you at the beginning that the first year was going to be tough. In light of all this I decided to share because it's not just you, reader, or me, it's growing pains for a lot of people.

In the midst of all this, I opened my iPad after 6 months and discovered that way back then I had bought "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People"by Steven Covey and I started from Habit 1: Be Proactive. I liked that Covey brought up the serenity prayer from 12-step programs "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference". The adrenaline roller coaster of jumping from "crisis" to "crisis" always reminds me of an addiction-inducing paradigm, but that may just be the neuroscientist in me. Fight-or-flight, reward, fight-or-flight, reward. The trick here is to break the vicious cycle and to prioritize, but also to know which battles to take on and focus on those. You hear the words "time management" thrown at you endlessly in your first year, but being proactive is different. It's identifying the things that are important and that you can change (either in yourself or in others) and purposefully act on those. This also require to get out of your shell and to talk to a lot of different people to better understand your field, your institution and your new role. There may be things you didn't know you could change and people you didn't know had the power to change them. There may be things that you truly cannot change or control and you have to find your way around them or don't let them get to you. I'm practicing and we'll see how it goes....


  1. I am 4 months in and already vastly behind on each of points 1-10 above. I have a grant deadline next week and I don't even have the specific aims. How did I even let that happen? The ironic thing is that everyone tells me how "on top of things" I am. On the inside, I am completely overwhelmed and having anxiety attacks everyday. Thanks for sharing. It's comforting to know I am not alone.

  2. I'm glad this was helpful. Hang in there. Sometimes we bite more than we can chew...figuring out how many things can be done at the same time has been really hard.

  3. This is month 4 for me too and reading your post is like seeing myself in a mirror, I feel completely overwhelmed most of the time, thank you for sharing your experience!

    1. What I can say now at the beginning of year 3, it gets better. It doesn't get easier, but you become stronger. :)