Friday, February 20, 2015

How do you let go? Developing your ability to delegate on the tenure-track.

When during your tenure track do you stop being a postdoc and a PI at the same time? I am struggling at the moment with being pulled in multiple different directions and still doing the bench work, while managing the lab and various professorial tasks. Running a lab feels like being on strength training: first you lift 30 lbs, then 40, then 50, and as you get stronger the weight keeps piling on. Whatever you thought was overwhelming 6 months ago, has doubled in intensity now, yet you can manage or try to.

The biggest priority is finishing two papers: revisions on a collaborative project and submission on the lab's first manuscript. The pressure on paper #1 comes from not wanting to let my collaborators wait, while paper #2 is necessary for my R01 submission. Yet this month is a perfect storm of other commitments that cannot be moved: most of my teaching is happening now, I'm hosting a faculty candidate, I have to put together two progress reports and specific aims for two grants. Plus all the random BS that fills your day like meeting with seminar speakers, faculty meetings, tracking down orders, etc. Next month I'm gone for back to back conferences, so the clock is ticking. Since things are not moving as fast as I wanted with the papers, I took it upon myself to help speed things up, to the point that whenever I can, I do experiments for one paper in the morning and for the other in the afternoon. As I struggle to keep my head above water, I wonder, is this right? Am I supposed to be both postdoc and PI right now?

While my undergraduate advisor was a fierce micromanager, my doctoral and postdoctoral mentors were very laissez faire. Any pressure to publish, or do anything really, was completely self inflicted, but their careers did not depend on me at all. As a manager, I think I'm pretty hands off, but all my people are young and freshly graduated, and they still ask advice on experiments and data interpretation, so I want to be available to go over their data as necessary. Just for reference, my postdoctoral advisor never saw raw data I generated, ever...I think. Data was presented in fully structured lab meeting talks every 6 months or in manuscript form. Some of the questions in my mind are "How do I get them to the level of independence necessary to become a PI?", "Should I stop picking up their slack?" and "What kind of relationship do I want with my trainees?"

Honestly, I think my postdocs work a lot. They're at work on weekends and holidays and during snow storms. They'll be there whenever is necessary and would never think twice about coming in at odd hours to get me data for a deadline. Still I'm struggling to accept one of the most common advice I received while starting the lab "You have to remember that your people are not you". Even if I don't know where anything is in the lab any more, I'm stuck between two conflicting thoughts 1) that I'm faster and more motivated than they are, and I can get things done; and 2) that I don't have any idea of how long it takes to do something and I should just let them do their jobs. And this is the real conundrum, by stepping in as the fourth super-postdoc, am I helping or actually hindering their ability to become independent and more efficient? Am I making my life harder by doing two jobs, while I should give them time to get things done? I always try to lead by example, so by seeing me running around like a headless chicken (and deathly ill for the past week) should they be motivated or just realize that this job is crazy?

Any advice or comment would be greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Getting my ducks in a row for the twin R01s

We are 18 weeks out from submission day and I have started putting all my ducks in a row to see if this crazy idea of submitting two R01s at once is really going to work.

Just a note on where I am coming from to put everything into prospective, since there was a really awesome discussion on Drugmonkey's blog about whether it makes sense for a new investigator to go big with multiple grants in rapid succession or at the same time.
My lab does two things which are in the same field, but that overall can be quite different and use different approaches and animal models. The reason why I do two things is that these two projects have been continuously funded for the past 7 years as I have been writing back to back grants on them for that long. My strategy is: the moment you get a grant, you write another grant, because money begets money. These projects got me four postdoctoral fellowships, and when I started my K99, I also received an equivalent internal grant for the other project. As a new faculty I have my R00 and I have equivalent (actually, a bit more) foundation funding for the other project. So the way I look at it, they're pretty much even. No project is new, no project has no history of continued funding/productivity, hopefully in the next few months I will have last author publications for both, and both projects have direct human disease relevance. Also, my start-up is fully banked, my R00 ends in 2016 and my other funding ends in 2017, so I am not panicking and I have money to resubmit these babies over and over again as I get comments on them for the next 2 years. I am not trying to brag, just saying that this is not a desperate ploy to con the NIH, this is just a strategy to keep my research program going the way it is....well, maybe a tad bigger. Only one R01 will mean I have to fire people in the long run. I have always felt that it takes 6 months to plan and write a good R01 and I'm not advocating that you do this if you don't have the data.

So, we were talking about ducks...These, in no particular order, are the initial steps I have taken.

- Put together an outline of the data we have and of the most compelling specific aims I can think of for both projects. Define what we need to move forward and define a timeline for obtaining the additional data for the specific aims.

- Peruse NIH Matchmaker (my new favorite website). You can paste you summary or specific aim page and find grants with similar scope to yours (see the description here). This allowed me to figure out how other people framed their questions. Some proposals were from direct competitors, but some were also from good colleagues, whom I immediately emailed them to ask for a copy of their Specific Aims. I also plan to discuss their strategy with them to see how they felt about their study sections.

- Based on the proposed experiments, contact the collaborators and co-PI to meet/Skype to discuss the preliminary experiment or resources needed and develop a timeline to obtain the data.

- Contact the grant writing service at my university to get organizational and editing assistance.

- Block out an afternoon once a week where I leave the lab to read and write in peace, since writing in my office is nearly impossible nowadays.

The next step is actually to sign up for the gym and get a packet of yoga lessons, so that I can keep sane while this is going on, as I'm also doing experiments on both papers (one in the morning and one in the afternoon)...

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
I don't miss Boston much, but I did love these ducklings.