Friday, January 23, 2015

The beginning of the R01 twin strategy

Parents of twins will probably laugh at my naivete, but as someone who always wanted two kids
Mother with twins
I always thought that twins were the most efficient way to achieve that goal: you have two of them at once and you're done. So I didn't bat an eye when one if my senior faculty mentors outlined what I will call the "R01 twin strategy" to me.

His reasoning was that getting a first R01 with early investigator status, a good funding history and good productivity should be doable, but the big ordeal is then getting that second R01, which is orders of magnitude harder that the first one. If my first R01 goes in in June and the second in October as planned, the Just In Time update for the second grant will include a funding decision for the first one...the unlikely chance that the first one gets funded could kill the second one. The alternative strategy is to develop them as fraternal twins, separate in all fashions (topic, approach and study section) and send them out into the world, i.e. the CSR, together. Then the JIT will say "pending" for both. If they get rejected, you resubmit together. If one gets funded, mazel tov! If both get funded, double mazel tov, golden confetti, and a serious discussion with the dean about lab space!!

It's bold and some will say it's suicidal. The huge issue is planning, because splitting the time to work on two major grants means half the writing effort and, in this funding climate, that could mean disaster. Yet, this is very appealing to me. I thought some of my other senior mentors would yell at me for proposing this, but they actually were intrigued and thought it was a viable idea as long as it was carried out correctly. Anyone who ever knew me in college knows my multitasking schedules to be the stuff of legend (and cause of endless teasing)... I have 19 weeks: if split in alternating 4 weeks intervals for each grant, that gives me 2 full months each, plus 3 extra weeks. So I'll commit to a pilot run: 1 week to outline 2 sets of specific aims, 4 weeks for each grant, then I'll decide whether to drop one or keep going on both. I've been on break from grant writing since August and this is an exciting new challenge.

I'll try and blog through it. Just as a preview of what's to come, today I had an experiment planning meeting with the co-PI on one of the grants and I started working on the new biosketch that will be used starting in June. This last endeavor caused a minor meltdown. You see, the new biosketch gets rid of your publication list and asks you to point out your major accomplishments and contributions to science, and I had nothing to say. What have I done that is really significant? I don't have a single major discovery that pushed science forward. No Science, Cell or Nature paper. How do I fake this? After a moment of panic and some soothing rounds of Candy Crush, I started writing possible contributions and grouping papers under them. I have been at the forefront of next-generation sequencing identifying multiple novel disease genes. I have defined guidelines for genetic testing in different population. I have pioneered blah, blah, blah. I have made sure healthy babies were born, goddammit! Okay, maybe R01 #2 will have a presentable biosketch...but that's the one with the least preliminary data. Where are the cell biology and mouse genetics pubs for R01 #1? Crap, that's the R00 conversion. This paper we're writing better be going out pronto!...And as you see I'm rapidly spinning out of control.

What do you think, readers, am I a) insane, b) ridiculously cocky, c) just right? Will I survive?

PS: I think the twins need names...

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Are you a grasshopper or an ant? Risk taking in lab management

I have been spending a lot of time thinking about risk-taking behavior lately. Just a few months shy of two years I have six people in the lab and staring at their faces at lab meeting fills me with happiness and dread. I have made clear promises on the number of years I can support them, but they are all great and the last thing I want to do is to let them go in the middle of a promising project...hence the dread to keep the grant money flowing to keep them going if they need more time.

Before starting my lab I asked a lot of people for advice and put together a couple of collections of words of wisdom (here and here). The most frequent and consistent advice was to hire very carefully and take my time to hire the right people, which I followed religiously. I waited for the lab to be set up and I was more than a year in before I posted a job for my first postdoc and it took two rounds of interviews, a couple of thousand dollars in travel money and six months before I found the right fit. The other ones came very quickly, partially because grant money generated new jobs which needed to be filled.

While most of the advice I received was unanimous and made sense, there was one topic which was divisive: How to expand. Some people said: "Hire as much as you can, blow through your start-up and get as many hands on deck as possible to generate preliminary data for more grants", and others recommended the opposite: "Save your startup for a rainy day, plan very carefully and deliberately so that you don't exhaust your resources and become overwhelmed". So what to do? People have been equally successful with both strategies, but the "go all in" approach was more appealing to me so I ended up with a full lab in less then 2 years (I designed the lab space for 6 people and my ideal lab size is 6-10).

Am I right? Am I wrong? Will I die in the winter like a grasshopper? I don't think it's that simple. The more I do this, the more I realize that your lab is a projection of yourself. As you define the culture in the lab and assemble the combination of people you want, you also set the long term strategy. I am a very careful planner, but I am also not afraid of risk. I think a good proportion of risk can lead to higher pay offs and that you have to incorporate risk in your strategy. You accept a certain amount of risk if you invest in the stock market or if you purchase real estate in a transitional neighborhood. You have to able to roll the dice and see how it goes. In a small business you must include systemic losses in your business plan, i.e. that a percentage of your customers may not pay or that a certain amount of merchandise will be stolen. So my strategy is to have as many competent people as possible generate data in the best possible environment so that I will be able to write grants to support them further. Also, I like to collaborate widely and openly with the expectation that it's possible someone will screw me or take data from me, but that that is a risk worth taking in order to find people who will enrich my research instead.

I know people who are very uncomfortable with this approach, who got burned by past collaborators and do not want to share, or who want only 2-3 people in the lab to be able to work with them closely. And I think that's perfectly valid. What matters is that you have a strategy and that you figure out what is comfortable for you. We'll see how mine works out...

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Dear Delta, it's not me, it's you, and we are done!

This is a somewhat unorthodox use of my blog, since this issue is only tangentially related to my science or lab management, but this is the most public forum I have. So I thought instead of sending in a complaint on, why not put my letter out there for everyone to see.

Dear Delta, we are done! You are not my preferred airline any more and I will stop going out of the way to fly with you. We have been almost exclusive for 15 years and while many people kept saying "Are you crazy? Delta sucks!", I defended you "Have you ever flown United or American? They suck even more! I like Delta." This warm and fuzzy feeling towards you was helped by the fact that I maintained status (either Silver or Gold) for all this time and because you or your partners got me where I needed to go, hence I got to fly mostly Air France or KLM, which are lovely. Then this year it all ended and I am relegated back to Skymiles Member....despite logging almost 40,000 miles with you, going to Mumbai and Paris and a few US destinations. All because I am a very thrifty traveler and snatched up the best possible rates, so didn't reach the new $2,500 dollar limit you set.

Well, Delta, I travel a lot for work and for pleasure, but as a scientist I don't have much money and I like to be mindful of what I spend, so even when I fly on a funding agency's dime, I make sure I choose my flights carefully. For this reason, unfortunately, I have to tell you that you're back in the same pool with all the others and will receive no preferential treatment. I can cancel the silly AmEx credit card I never use and on which I most certainly never spend 25K in a year. You'll say "Good riddance! I only really care about the business class people, anyways. They book a few days in advance and reach that $2,500 limit in one sitting." Yeah, maybe you never loved me, then... Sometimes, it felt you did, but you may have been faking it. When I really think about it, all those business class upgrades were on KLM, Alitalia and Air France.

Goodbye, Delta. Now I can go where I have secretly wanted to go for a while and find a way to take Emirates everywhere (that camera on the nose of the plane rocks!) or maybe I can give a chance to Lufthansa. The world is my oyster....apart from Heathrow. I hate Heathrow like the plague and will do anything in my power to avoid it, even when the connecting flights are "oh so cheap".

PS: Note added in proof on 1/18. In the 2 weeks since this post I had to book 3 flights (2 domestic and 1 to Europe) and though one was still with Delta, one went to United and one went (oh, yes) to Emirates. I tried to see if I could use my 60,000+ miles to go to Europe, but Delta wanted a whopping 110,000 miles for the flight. I'm so glad I quit you...

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Do you want out of the lab? Advice to prepare for your non-academic job search

In the middle of academic job season or right around when you're planning for your defense this Spring, you start thinking about jobs outside of academia. But how do you apply for a non-academic job? To complement my post on advice for the academic job search, I have enlisted a guest blogger from industry, a grad school friend who after leaving her postdoc has risen through the ranks of medical writing and pharma marketing, AND who through the years has interviewed many hopefuls like you. This is what she wants you to know.

So, you are sitting at the bench in your graduate program/post-doc and you say to yourself; “this is not where I want to be.” Although it has been nearly 8 years, I remember that moment. It wasn’t a singular epiphany, but more a series of telltale signs that couldn’t be ignored. First, my search for a postdoc lacked focus and long-term planning. Second, once landing a position, I realized quickly that I may be doing a second postdoc because of my lack of planning. Finally, and this is controversial for some, the financial realities of my academic life could not be reconciled with where I needed to be.
The non-academic job search is very different from an academic track. Even simple tasks like resume writing and post-interview thank you letters are not necessarily fundamental skills that one acquires in graduate school. But, after some trial and error and a little experience, I would like to share some tips and fundamentals to help you along the way.

Beginning the Process
The question you have to ask yourself is why not academia? Your answer to this question will help you focus your search. If you want to be at the bench, but not in academia, then you will be moving towards the industry postdoc (as a newly minted PhD or graduate student) or staff scientist (more experienced postdoc). If you do not want to be at the bench, then you must adjust how you view your PhD/postdoc experience and decipher how transferrable your skills will be in a different field. This is especially important if you a moving outside of science/medicine/healthcare.
This brings me to the resume. First, a resume IS NOT a CV. Second, your resume is not one size fits all. It must be adapted to the type of position you are applying for. Resume dos and don’ts include:
  • Do make sure you describe the skills you gained during that time explicitly. A hiring manager (often the first line in the job process) has no idea what it takes to get a PhD; so, make sure you let them know. Your degree is your greatest asset in the absence of job experience.  
  • Do let a group of peers read your resume, especially those employed in fields that interest you
  • Do limit it to one page
  • Do not send a resume which focuses on lab techniques when the job has nothing to do with working in a lab

Remember, a resume is a living document. Keep it up-to-date and ready to go. You never know when an opportunity will come.

Where do I look?
The first rule of any job search is to look within your network.  Start by reaching out to those whom have completed the job seeking process. Often times, their companies may have open positions or searches that are not being advertised. Furthermore, there is generally a financial incentive for people who refer candidates that are successful.  Now that you have a resume that you are pleased with, set up a LinkedIn profile. This will help you build professional connections beyond your immediate circle and give you an idea about the diversity of positions that exist. The LinkedIn job search allows to you tailor your search by company, geography, and certain key words and if you have the premium service, you can actually see how your profile compares with other applicants. If you know that you want to go into a specific field such as tech transfer/IP law, consulting, or data science, investigate potential on-campus recruiting events that could to internship/fellowship opportunities that could turn into permanent positions. Other useful searches include:

While I have not talked about the cover letter process, the writing of a cover letter generally follows the same rules of the resume.  These should be tailored to the position with only the relevant skills highlighted. If you are asking a colleague/associate/friend for a referral, please make sure that you send a cover letter with your resume. It is not their responsibility to sell you to an employer. They are a more direct conduit to the hiring process and putting more expectations on them beyond that is not professional.
At the end of the day, you have to be realistic about your immediate and long-term goals. Are you looking to “just get out” or do you have an ultimate goal? Just be prepared for a potentially long process that may not yield the results you expect.

The interview(s)
If you made it this far, CONGRATS!!! Depending on the field, your first interview may be with a hiring manager, HR representative or recruitment company. This person will be looking at your general qualifications and potential workplace compatibility red flags (i.e. Is this person crazy?). They may have some general knowledge about people with your background based on their experience, but don’t expect them to have an intimate knowledge of your field or explicit skill set. This is where your cover letter and resume are keys.
 In preparation for your interview, please review the website and review your potential interview roster on LinkedIn (if  known). If this is a referral, do try to speak with your contact regarding the company. I know it seems like common sense, but I’ve interviewed people that had no real idea about the company or what we did. If the company is public, review the annual report as insight into company strategy. Regarding printed copies of your resume, always have a couple just in case your interviewer doesn’t bring one of their own.
Most interviewers will give you their cards, please make sure send a thank you note post-interview. It seems to be a dying art amongst the younger job-seeking crowd these days. Send them individually (no mass emails), and note that while it may not get read, it will be noticed if one is not sent. If you manage to land a position, please note that they may want you in as early as 2 weeks after the interview. So, be truly ready to roll!

Final thoughts
You’ve been through the entire process and it hasn’t yielded one hit. Look, it happens. You will have to go through several rounds of this process over the course of your non-academic career. The keys to success are analogous to those of acquiring your PhD:
  •       You have to possess staying power, “stickwithitness” even when it seems like an impossible task
  •        Do you research and be thoughtful and realistic about your prospects
  •       Be prepared for an unexpected result/opportunity. You never know when/where it will come

All the best with your job search!!!