Tuesday, April 1, 2014

"The New PI" turns ONE!!

I now have one year of being a PI under my belt. A year ago I was filled with anticipation,
somewhat naively embarking on this amazing adventure (here). Nobody can prepare you for it and nobody can tell you how hard it is going to be. At times it was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life (here), and I went from the happiest and productive I had ever been to feeling trapped in a bog just trying to figure out how to keep my head above water. I used the metaphor before of feeling like a steam engine trying to get a train full of lead to get going and a friend recently described starting a lab as attempting to move a mountain. You start by wondering how you are going to do it and feeling like an abject failure, but then you find a groove, a handhold and you start pulling...and things start to move, oh, so imperceptibly.
The last couple of days sum it up very nicely. March 30 I braved the rain and snow to get myself to lab after a week of 12-14 hour days doing experiments for revisions on one of my postdoc papers, trying to get a letter of intent for a grant written and dealing with the million random administrative things coming at me every day (getting my DEA license, ordering, harassing HR...). I was emotionally and physically exhausted, so when I got back home I just started trolling pharma web sites looking for another job. March 31 I was awarded my first independent grant, got reviews back for my first paper as a senior corresponding author requiring somewhat minimal additional work and got asked on a thesis committee (does this count as "service"?). Had yesterday not happened, this would have been a very different post. This job has a way to rope me back every time and so we move forward.

These are some of the things I learned in my first year:

1) It's going to be slow. Everyone tells you "It will take forever to get anything done". You listen to them, but have no concept of how slow things can really get. If you are used to continuous movement like I am, it is utterly excruciating. I really urge you to finish you postdoc papers before you start if you don't want to go insane. I also recommend a good yoga teacher or whatever makes you zen.

2) Find some buddies. Get coffee or drinks with the other new PIs in your department or your school. Vent, learn from each other's mistakes, lean on each other. It's easier when you have other people to strategize with and going through the same things. It's also fun when you can meet people from other departments working on completely different subjects. You can come up with crazy interdisciplinary groups and it reminds you why you wanted to be a university professor in the first place.

3) Manage up. Managing up is a skill I am still learning. I tend to get frustrated and not ask for what I need, when in reality I can often just ask my chair and he fixes the problem right away. A lot of the grief I put myself through is self-inflicted, when I could just get my superiors involved and work with them to make things better.

4) Remember why you are doing it. At the end of graduate school I made a pact with a friend that I would quit the moment this job stopped being fun. If it's not fun, it's not worth your time. I love the people in my lab. I think they're awesome and smart and funny, and it's great going to work with them every day. I love sitting on the confocal, taking beautiful pictures. It's peaceful and I can carve 3-4 hours of "me time" to play with lasers. I also love writing grants (not kidding). I love writing in general, but seeing a brand new idea you didn't even know you had shape up in front of your eyes and crafting it into a story are really enjoyable...and I get to buy a really expensive pair of shoes or a painting if I get the grant.

Picture credit: Trust me, I'm a "Biologist"


  1. Many congratulations, Chiara!! You are made for this endeavor (and/or capable of accomplishing whatever you desire), and I wish you every success along your chosen path! It was, and continues to be, a privilege to work with you!
    Cheers from Boston - Jen P

  2. Congrats on surviving the first year! I'm just a few months in and feeling totally overwhelmed. It's a tremendous help to have blogs like yours that offer both much needed empathizing as well as advice for dealing. I'm looking forward to the next year of blog posts!

  3. Congratulations on completing your first year! I am a regular reader who enjoys the insights that you provide into the life of a fresh TT faculty (especially interesting considering that I'll be on the job market this fall). I like your lab management and product review posts. Keep them coming!

  4. Thanks to everyone for all your support! Blogging about this has been interesting and my hope was sharing my experience would be helpful to others. I'll do my best to keep it up.