Thursday, April 30, 2015

The end of the R01 twin strategy: what I learned

Despite the absolute madness of the past two months, I was still holding on to the hope I would be able to submit two R01s for the June deadline as detailed in a post earlier this year. People had conflicting advice about the effectiveness of submitting two big grants at once to increase probability of funding, but many were intrigued. I hung on to it as long as I could for psychological reasons that is not advisable discussing here, but instrument access to obtain critical preliminary data for one of the grants just fell through, so it is not happening despite the fact that half of it is already written.

I did learn some things in the process. Mainly that you really don't know what you have until you seriously start writing. I have a white board in my office where I outlined multiple versions of the specific aims, then I wrote both sets of specific aims out by the end of February, with three months to spare. One grant was clearly the top contender to make it to the deadline with flying colors...until it wasn't. I started writing it first because it was the easiest to write (I've been writing some version of it for almost 10 years now). It's very exciting, it has 10 years worth of preliminary work and solid preliminary data, but it requires a lot of moving parts. Multiple collaborators who are not getting back to me with what I need, other collaborators to help me move into new directions with limited instrument access. As I was writing, I became very hopeful that this project will be really cool and significant, but to be that, all the parts need to work together and right now they are not gelling. I need more time, not to write, but actually to coordinate everything and put the moving parts together. In addition, I don't know why, but I had no response from any of the program officers I contacted with the specific aim page despite the fact that this was tailored to fit nicely into their programs. We were just awarded a small pilot grant just with the purpose to move this research further and the larger project behind this is funded until 2017, so there is absolutely no reason for me to submit this before October.

So I'm left with the other one, which is my R00 conversion. I was very worried about it because I felt unsure of what to do with the preliminary data, but as I was putting everything together and deciding how to structure it and going to meetings to figure out how it would fit in the field. It just came together in my head as I was writing it. I think I have preliminary data for every single aim and subaim, I think it's feasible and cool and I've managed to squeeze in some fancy new techniques just for safe measure. Because it doesn't require anyone but us, and uses the people I already have, it's pretty straightforward to put together, so I am aiming to finish writing the 12 pages of the research proposal by the end of this week, which will give me 4 weeks to work with the scientific writer the university has given me as support and to circulate with my mentoring committee for their feedback. As a back-up one of the aims will be sent as an internal pilot grant which would support the establishment of the fancy new techniques in case the reviews come back asking for more preliminary data. Plus a DoD call just came out asking for pre-applications on this same topic, and the NIH grant can be adapted for that. The twins are splitting in multiple grants and now my deadlines are:
June 1st - pilot grant on R01 #1
June 5th - R01 #1
June 10th  - DoD letter of intent for R01 #1 back-up
October 1st - DoD grant, if selected
October 5th - R01 #2
November  5th - R01 #1 resubmission?

So I will eventually have two R01s in the same cycle by the end of this year and they have spawned two more proposals which now may turn into twin Irish twins...

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Interviewing for a postdoc? Questions you should ask.

Following the "Questions you should ask" for the faculty job search, I was asked for a similar post for the postdoctoral search.

This is another really important decision that you'll have to make to further your career and it should be appropriately researched...we're scientists after all and we should research the lab we plan to join as well as we perform a thorough literature search before embarking on a new project. Aditi Nedkarni already wrote a great post on LinkedIn Pulse with a list of excellent questions you should go through.

Most of the questions that she suggest such as "How does the PI deal with conflict?" "Does the PI assist with experiments? Picking a project?' are much easier to ask to current fellows in the lab, because the PI may have a different prospective or think they do a good job when in reality the lab has a different view. There will always be pros and cons with a postdoctoral mentor and you have to figure out whether the cons are too much for you. Some people thrive in environments which can make other people miserable. I always found that as a postdoc, I was very honest with prospective lab members so that they could make an informed choice. If a PI does not allow you to speak with the current lab members alone, it's a red flag. Even for Skype interviews, I always organize a second interview where I leave the lab alone with the candidate for half an hour, so that they can talk without me present.

I think that the most important predictor of success is "How many people from the lab went on to obtain a faculty position?". If you are in the same field, you should pretty much know because your PhD mentor should know the person and tell you about their progeny. Some labs have the list of former trainees and their current position on their website, but it doesn't hurt to ask the PI in person. Especially now that the job market is so bad. This is a difficult question if you are interested in working with a new PI who hasn't produced any progeny yet, but you should ask them about their strategy for helping people with their careers. The way experienced and new PIs answer these questions should tell you lots about what kind of mentor they are going to be.

Before interviewing you should prepare to answer questions about you and your research (see this article for advice), but also think long and hard about what kind of project and environment you want. Then you tailor your questions to figure out whether the lab is a good fit. It can also be useful to have your PI put you in touch with colleagues that did their postdoc in the labs you're interested in. I just had a long conversation with a friend's student and it turned out my postdoctoral advisor may not be the best scientific fit, but I could recommend several other faculty at the same institution.

At the end of your PhD, your ideas on your future may still be nebulous and that is perfectly okay. I would strongly recommend that you interview in as many labs as you'd like and that you explore different possibilities. Do not feel like you are wasting people's time/money. As faculty, we are aware in the investment we make in finding the right people in our lab, and we are aware that good candidates are few and far between and that many people will have multiple options. As long as you are gracious and open with your decision process, people will not get upset and even if you decide for a different lab, you will have forged scientific relationships for the future. Just in case you'll need a second postdoc for any reason, or a faculty position one day...

Saturday, April 4, 2015

On the faculty job market? Questions you should ask.

It's negotiation time! You have found a university you really like and they like you back, or maybe
they like you and you're wondering whether you like them. A lot of people say that looking for a job is like dating, but in this case you are expected to make a life-long commitment after two two-day encounters and a few phone calls. What are the things you should know before jumping in?

I polled Twitter and listed all questions I wished I had known to ask, but getting answers may be tricky. You cannot ask all of these to the same person and in some cases you may need to innocently ask the students at lunch, or ask friends who may have inside knowledge. Questions are a way to show that you really want to "get" the culture of the place where you are interviewing, but are also necessary information gathering to make an informed choice and pull out possible red flags. You can start by reading this great article from The Professor is In for some guidance and examples.

With tenure in mind:
- What are the requirements for tenure?
- How many R01 funded faculty are there in the institution?
- How many active researchers are there in the department? (This can be touchy, tread carefully)
- How is the grant administration pre and post-award? (This is more important than you think and can be asked to some of the new faculty. I had someone ask me this during the last hiring round.)
- Do you have grant writers and consultants on staff? Does the department/university cover the cost?
- What kind of internal grants/ training grant are available to me?
- Is there a mentoring plan for new faculty? How do you assure that they will be successful?
- Will I be immune from teaching and service for at least one year?
- How much teaching will be required? How large will the classes be?
- How is teaching evaluated at this university? How will I know I'm on track?
- Do I need to have graduated a PhD student to get tenure?
- If hired with tenure, is it automatic from the beginning? Or there will be a lag and will I have to go through the process again?

Graduate program:
- How many students does the program accept?
- What are the requirement for incoming students? How does the selection process work?
- What is your standard qualifying exam? (This can be asked to the students at lunch and can tell you loads about how challenging the program is.)
- What are the requirements for taking a students in my lab? Do I need funding?
- How long will the program pay for the student?

To recent new faculty:
- Why did you decide to come here?
- Are you happy here? (Tread very carefully on this one. It may need to be phrased differently. But it's very important. There are a million reasons why people are unhappy, so take the answers with a grant of salt. But if some people seem unhappy, you need to find out why. The people they put on your schedule are the ones they trust to say nice things and they're hiding the really unhappy ones.)

- Who will I negotiate the start-up with?
- What was the average start-up/salary for faculty in the past few years? (I don't know that you can ask this directly, but you should know the answer before you start negotiating. See this link for salary info for colleges)
- If they didn't already do so, could you show me the lab space? Which building? Who are the neighbors? What/where is the shared equipment available to me?
- Do the start-up funds expire? (They shouldn't, but some institutions have definite budgets)
- Do the start-up funds come in installments or are they all available at once?

Remember to get everything in writing. As a rule of thumb universities lie. They lie for multiple reasons, often because things change and internal struggles alter priorities. Your chair may be powerful one day but not the next. Your school may lose admissions money, while someone else may get a huge philanthropic donation and suddenly have the ear of the provost and the president. It is literally the Hunger Games of the Deans. You are fresh and shiny and exciting and have all the power when you negotiate, once you sign most of that power is gone. Make sure you get everything you need and then some.

The list is hardly an exhaustive one, but it's a good starting point. Feel free to comment with more questions to add and continue reading for questions from the comments:

1) How much (%) salary is expected on grants? If you have a K/R00 or small R, do they expect less than if you have an R01. 
2) Does the University have an incentive plan if you meet a minimum % salary support?
3) What % of indirect costs come back to you? Into flexible spending accounts? When and how long available. Also found some places will to offer more back for smaller mech grants to help get lab going. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

And now year 3 begins!

It's 730 days of being an Assistant Professor. After the absolute exhaustion and chaos of the first six months and the light at the end of the tunnel of finishing year one (Y1), year two (Y2) was a very different beast. The mad foundation grant writing of Y1 paid off, so most of Y2 was devoted to getting the lab going to gather data for R01 funding and getting our work "on the map". Plus settling into the job of the professor, teaching, giving a few talks, joining a couple of thesis committees, a faculty search committee. As I've mentioned before, this job is like weight-lifting: once you're comfortable with 100lbs, you bench 150, then 200, and so on and so forth. In talking with senior faculty, everybody says it never gets easier, you just become better at juggling more and more things. I can totally see myself facing the same struggles Scitrigrrl described on Tenure She Wrote in her post about being a 3rd year faculty: being tired and overwhelmed and pulled in multiple directions. With the end of the newness (I can't say any more "I've only been here a year and a half"), come several responsibilities which are mostly self-imposed: the need to bring in substantial funding, to provide job security to people in the lab, to set the stage to become established in the field, to be a good community member.

I'm not frantic or scared yet, but I feel a sense of urgency right now. During Y2 I mostly felt good, I was learning, exploring, getting stuff done. Now, I'm on shakier ground. One day I feel like I'm completely inadequate and have a meltdown, like the one I described a couple of weeks ago when I freaked out about a talk I had given. The next day everything is rosy when I get a 2 as a mentor on my postdoc's NRSA scores. A 2 is "outstanding", thank you very much! Of course I had a senior investigators with oodles of grants and multiple NRSA mentees as co-mentor on the application, so maybe he's a 1 and I'm a 3, but still :) So one day I'm happy, one day I'm panicking. I've gotten over looking up exes on Facebook, and instead I pick at emotional scabs by PubMed-ing people in my cohort. How long did it take them to get that first paper out? How much better is their CV than mine? How much worse? The new NIH Biosketch format, where you have to sell yourself and your contributions to science, is not helping at all.

It also doesn't help that I'm putting out fires all day long and sometimes I look at the clock and it's 5pm and I haven't opened my Research Approach file for the R01...or is it R01s? I have two sets of Specific Aims written, but time is flying aways at an incredible speed and preliminary data is not coming in fast enough. I am still stuck making all the decisions in the lab and I really don't want to be there. Maybe one of my goals for Y3 can be to learn how to let people in the lab walk on their own two feet. It's so hard to let go, but if don't do it, I'm not sure I can survive.