Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Musings about work ethics and unstructured schedules

After a very though year, I decided to take it easy this summer, which got me thinking about work
ethics and the kind of role model I want to be for the lab. One of my goals as a Principal Investigator (PI) and manager is to promote a work environment where people can be productive and happy. It is a very tall order and after 18 years doing research in different labs and institutions my thinking on what is an appropriate work load for a scientist continues to evolve.

I have been in places that were so stressful you would find people break down and cry in the women's bathroom every afternoon; and I have been in places where nobody cared about your progress but yourself. I have been thinking for a long time about what makes people productive. I remember one night in grad school (around the time the infamous Mu-Ming Poo letter on work ethics was leaked), when a new PI came up to our lab at 8pm and asked us: "Why are you here? Your boss left at 4. Why can't I get my people to stay longer on their own?" We were kind of clueless...all we could tell him was that we were there because we had work to do. Whether our boss was there or not, it did not matter.

At the same time, the 12-14 hour workdays in grad school were only productive to a certain extent. I had friends who took lots of vacations and still managed to publish great papers, and I sometimes felt that working too hard was more counterproductive than anything. The exhaustion and the emotional drain would actually cloud my thinking. A post-doc friend down the hall blew me away with his philosophy (imagine an Australian accent): "You know, I only stay late when everything is working well. If something is not working, I just leave, even if it's 3pm, and come back the next day with a fresh mind". Ha, such a hedonistic concept, mate. But could he be right in some way?

I think at the end it depends on what motivates you and on the structure you want in your life. The beauty of lab-life is that it's flexible. As the single mother of a self-sufficient feline, I have no constraints on my time, but friends and colleagues with kids have come up with a multitude of strategies. My postdoc lab was a great place to have a baby, since my boss was incredibly supportive of family time. Some people would work very hard from 8am to 4pm, others would work 10 to 5 and come back at midnight once the little ones had gone to bed. The only pressure you had most of the time was the one you put on yourself and they all managed to be productive. I like that approach.

Last year I discussed my desire for making the lab a Result Only Work Environment, a place where schedules are self-regulated and where all that counts is producing results to meet specific deadlines. I clearly tell my people that they can come and leave when they want, as long as they get their work done and they let me know if they are not going to be around during work hours. Some senior investigators have warned me that I could get into trouble by letting technical staff dictate their hours, but it's a risk I'm willing to take. So far, I am the only lab on the floor where people are still there at 8pm. Sometimes they are stressed when I really need data for something, but most of the time I think (I hope) they are just there because they want to be. I always try my best to find the self-directed people during the interview process. I laughed when my lab peeps told me that, when asked by interviewees what my biggest pet-peeve is, they always answer "She gets really annoyed if you are not self-motivated"...and it's true. I think it's awesome that they lay down the law for me.

Vernazza (Cinque Terre) is just a couple of weeks away
Culture is better implemented when upper management provides the example and your lab may mostly be a reflection of the culture you set, but people in the lab have to embrace it. I don't really believe in work/life balance in academia, since I don't know any scientist who doesn't email at midnight. The first year of being a PI cured me of any expectations of ever having a reduced workload. However, I realized that, to survive this crazy ride, science has to be in harmony with your life. Some days I dream to take the afternoon off to catch up on the journal table of contents in peace, or plan a foreign vacation including a visit to one of the local scientific institutes because it would be fun. Other days I watch six hours of Orange is the New Black instead of working on a grant, or take a three hour lunch break to watch the World Cup. Call me crazy, but in the end it's all about enjoying what you do.

Note: A great post on burnout from blogger Psycgirl!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

What is this Twitter you all talk about?

After some crazy recent traffic due to a couple of tweets referencing my blog, I decided to give this Twitter thing a try. So if you wish you can now follow me @TheNewPI on Twitter.

I promise I will try and keep it active, as it may be easier to tweet websites and career development tips, than to construct a proper post. I have big plans for the FENS Forum in a couple of weeks where a great symposium on Women in Academia should provide some food for thought.

In the meantime, the BBC Radio has been broadcasting a Tweet of the Day that has nothing to do with Twitter.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Learning how to hire #4: figuring out who should be in your lab

I am back to hiring again, and though in no shape or form I feel like a know what I am doing, I figured out a few things from the past few rounds of hiring. So to follow up the past three installments of my "Learning how to hire" series (here, here and here), I am going to keep sharing what is going through my mind.

The one pieces of advice I have received from almost every senior investigator I asked for pills of wisdom about starting a lab was "Do not be afraid of the emptiness of the lab. Take you time in hiring the best people you can find." I had friends with lots of horror stories about wrong hires, so I tried to be very careful. I discovered that making the final decision about who should be in the lab can be incredibly difficult and that my thinking and my interview strategy have changed greatly compared to a year ago.

Sometimes take a calculated gamble. Last year around this time I was looking for a research assistant using Craigslist and wading through almost two hundred applications. I primarily needed someone who could help set-up the zebrafish facility, and I had to decide among professional fish techs, enthusiastic undergrads and professional lab techs with no fish experience. I was confronted with a wide range of salaries and qualifications. Would it be worthwhile to spend $70,000 on a professional aquatics tech who could get terribly bored, but save me the headache of starting an aquatic program from scratch without any experience? Should I go with a self-proclaimed fast-learner with a passion for neuroscience who had just finished college and just wing it? Then someone showed up out of left field, with extensive aquatic experience in the commercial sector, a background in neuroscience and a burning desire to come back into academia to pursue graduate studies. If your tech applicant already sounds like a graduate student, it is a really good sign. The gamble on someone who had an eclectic background paid off in spades, as we now have a wonderful fish facility which was showcased at a national facility management conference, plus I have someone who actually enjoys doing experiments.

Take your time to figure out what you need and be flexible. The first round of interviews I did took almost 6 months and $2-3,000 in travel expenses, but ended with two rejected offers. I focused on applicants with behavioral experience who ended up preferring to do more circuit-based approaches than the cellular/molecular work I do. There was a disconnect between the candidates I thought would be good for my lab and the career aspiration of students with the qualifications I wanted, so I had to regroup. I realized that I what I really wanted was someone whose passion was biochemistry and cell biology to do some kick-ass live imaging. So, that is the expertise I went after. Right now I need someone to staff the zebrafish project, but the candidates I have are very different from each other and I may need to be flexible in determining what I really want and what can be achieved with training.

Think in 3 to 5 year parcels. I am still trying to figure out what is sustainable. One piece of advice I received was to hire as many postdocs as I could to generate lots of preliminary data to get more grants.  While this does make sense to me, I also need to determine for how long I will be able to pay these people. There are lots of senior postdocs losing their jobs right now because the funding climate sucks. I am getting applications for very highly qualified people on their 3rd or 4th postdoc and while really tempting, unless it is an absolutely perfect match I have to turn them down immediately. They are way too expensive and my lab is too small at the moment to allow them to pursue their own independent projects. I do want my postdocs eventually to work on their own things and be successful, but the dynamics with someone right out of grad school vs. someone who has been leading projects for 10 years are very different. A postdoc on their 3rd experience cannot commit 3-5 years to developing a project and I cannot be sure that I will be able to pay them for that long. It's a lose-lose situation for both parties.

In the end, I think the choice of what your lab is going to be is a very personal one, based on the lab culture you want, your mentoring style and your publishing plan. I can assure you that having the right mix of people will make it fun to go to work every day.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Distributing effort on your grants (especially if you have an R00)

The original post was published on 6/7/2014, but updated with additional info following some great comments on 7/30/2013

When I was leaving my postdoc lab, my boss told me to be careful about my effort because when he started he did not pay much attention to it and soon he was stuck with no effort to give. In my head I was thinking "That's a nice problem to have, but that will definitely not happen to me".  Well, actually with 75% effort often tied to an R00 award, that is a real problem to consider. Especially if you go on a grant writing frenzy as I did. So I have learned a few things about distributing effort in the past year.

1) You may need to keep 5-15% for teaching and other academic activities. This will depend on where you are and how much the university contributes to your salary, but this was news to me. I guess it makes sense, since teaching and service must come from somewhere. If you commit yourself 100% to research then you have no effort to give for administrative and other work. Some universities will ask that you put 100% of your salary on grants, but others will not, so you need to discuss with your department chair or your grants administrator how to do this.

2) You must plan the distribution of your effort. If you have an R00, you must spend 75% of your effort on research and at the beginning this will be tied to your R00. If you are planning to apply for a bigger grant, like an R01 and want to devote 25-30% effort, you need to communicate with your Program Officer and let them know, so that when the grant gets funded you can adjust your R00 effort. The 75% research rule can be tricky, as different NIH institutes may have different policies and you should familiarize yourself with yours. You can also opt for foundation grants and you have to be careful about effort there. Most of these grants, while substantial, will not allow PI salary, but still require effort. I put 10 or 15% effort on every grant I applied for and quickly would have been out, since these grants were on a different project. Every grant had to be reduced to 5% and I heard of people putting 1 or 0.5% on foundation grants. Foundations tend to be more lenient with effort and will provide 1-2 full salaries for the people working on the actual research, so that you have someone with 100% effort on the project and you just need to provide direction.

3) Effort may be not tied to actual grant money (cost-sharing). You may put effort on a grant which does not allow PI salary and your department may cost-share your salary, i.e. agree to pay that portion of your salary necessary for you to perform/guide the research. Doing some internet searches I discovered cost-sharing is not favored by some schools where departments prefer not to pay, but it is something that you should keep in mind.

4) You must plan your grant strategy in advance. With my R00 ending early in 2016, I should apply for an R01 in February or June next year (see timelines for review here). Because some grants may take more than a year to be approved and funded, you need to consider where that big chunk of your salary is coming from each year, thinking a year and a half ahead.

5) Buy out of teaching or buy into teaching. If you have enough effort on grants and do not want to teach, you can buy out of teaching. Conversely, if you need the university to pay more of your salary, you can add a course to your load.

Your grants administrator or your department chair should be able to help you devise a strategy on how to best distribute your effort. Effort reporting is strictly regulated, especially on federal funds, so you have to consider all these issues carefully and make sure your effort is appropriately distributed. The NIH has some handy descriptions on how to calculate effort distribution here.