Friday, July 31, 2015

Doing more for the K to R01 transition: the NHLBI way

This week I was honored and excited to be cited, together with none other than DrugMonkey, as someone who provides good advice for new investigators, but what really caught my eye in the tweet was "NHLBI K-to-R01 Meeting". What was that, pray tell?
Luckily, one of my friends and colleagues is an NHLBI (Heart, Lung and Blood) K99/R00 grantee and was attending the meeting, so I got to snoop around.

The transition from K08/K01/R00 to R01 has been notoriously difficult. Both Data Hound and DrugMonkey have discussed this, here and here. Data Hound's analysis of the data of R00 to R01 transition showed that after 6 years from the start of the K99, half or less awardees have transitioned to an R01. Some people are told to transition early so that the study section will not require independent publications, some others (like myself) are told that an R01-like productivity is required. The NHLBI noticed the difficulties its trainees were experiencing and decided to do something about it, and it's awesome.

K-award recipients attend a 2 day meeting focused on helping them for the R01 transition. Talks from former trainees who have successfully transitioned and the usual discussion on how to apply for an R01 and what happens on a study section, are accompanied by panel discussion on the different NHLBI divisions and introduction to all the program officers who discuss their interests and lead break-out sections. In my opinion, this is truly invaluable. In talking to colleagues, I realized I had a very pro-active program officer, whom I met in person during the very first year of my K99 as she was roaming the halls of the Society for Neuroscience meeting in DC to come to meet her grantees, but she is not necessarily the norm. My colleague with the NHLBI K99 met his program officer for the first time at this K-to-R01 meeting. Having the chance to pick the brain of division chiefs and program officers, to discuss different study sections and to present your plans for your own lab could improve your chances of success in this horrible funding climate. Plus, such a meeting allows all the promising young investigators in similar fields to get together and network.

I was really impressed. I wonder if there is a way to get other institutes to do this. Are you aware of any other institute with similar programs?

Note from the Twittersphere:

Thanks to @TheSpenceLab we found out that the NIDDK (Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Disease) also has a similar workshop (invitation only) for its trainees. Link here. They have also developed a special R03 ($50,000/year for 2 years) just for their K01/K08/K23 grantees (PAR-12-285). Apparently they tend to prefer K01s to K99s and push people towards smaller mentored grants.

Interestingly, @jmcin9 points out that the NIDCD (Deafness and Other Communication Disorders) also uses R03s as tool to help trainees toward independence and has a separate PAR from the standard one (PAR-13-057).

Monday, July 20, 2015

Another annual identity crisis on the tenure track

Multiple possible directions! I liked that the university is
opposite to Prosecco station...
A couple of years ago I had written about the fear of branching into a new field of science. When
your research brings in an unexpected direction and you have to "make friends" with a whole different crowd who speaks a slightly different language. At the time I welcomed the challenge and branched out. I wanted to pursue a really cool and little studied question, which may take forever to figure out, and I'm still doing it. However, since I've been running the lab I found myself at a similar crossroads over and over again, and I resisted. Choosing to embark in a new literature and a new network was just too daunting for an overstretched new investigator. I decided to hire postdocs instead and to send them out into the world to learn about the new fields we need to get to know and to make their own contacts. It didn't quite work out as I expected. They did love the exposure and collected comments and ideas for their projects, but as the primary grant writer and the "big picture" person in the group I still need to get my own hands dirty. As the one at the helm of this boat, I need to actually steer and to steer I need to know the currents and the stars (as far as I know there is no GPS guidance for science).

The overwhelming fear is to become too diffuse and spread thin, to lose my identity. Everyone tells you that as a new investigator trying to become "established" (whatever that means...) you have to FOCUS, you have to forge your persona and make sure that people know about you and your accomplishments so that you get invited for talks and meetings to spread the gospel of your research. See an awesome post on how to get noticed by Dr. Becca. I already feel like a shape-shifter: one day I talk about disease, one day about very basic cell biology or molecular biology or genetics, one day I work on human sequencing data, the next I inject zebrafish embryo, and the next I go over mouse behavior data. I'm a jack of all trades and master of none. I have always worked this way and run multiple parallel operations. I really enjoy the intellectual exercise of connecting different dots, but I can't help but wonder whether this is the reason why I feel like I have made no big scientific contribution. I've never reached the necessary depth. Thus, the idea of taking on another field terrifies me.

Yet, my identity crisis last year was about not fitting in what I used to see as my field any more. There is security in having built a network of like-minded scientists, in knowing the history and the gossip, which questions have gone hot and then cold, but science moves forward and you move with it. In the past couple of months I talked to a few friends who are at or just past tenure and I was surprised to hear that I am not alone in this struggle. Everyone listed half a dozen things they do and talked about feeling lonely at some new conference trying to break into a field where they didn't know anyone. The trick, it seems, is to find multiple new directions and then go all in when something really works. I'm starting to think that these may be just growing pains, the sense of fear you have when your lab is getting bigger than something you could have handled alone. I am taking inspiration from Nicola Spaldin's recent piece on "Finding your most interesting question" and doing my best not to be afraid.

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Why postdocs should ask for more in general

I thought I'd weigh in on the kerfuffle going on on Twitter about the mostly irrational fears that Obama will force us to pay postdocs $50K. I'll have to start by admitting that I was never a "disgruntledoc" and I often wondered why people whine so much. When I was looking for postdocs I think I just accepted the job without even asking about salary and received an offer letter that stated that I would be guaranteed the NIH minimum for 24 months and then I was supposed to obtain fellowships to pay for my own salary. If I was able to do this, I would receive a 10% raise over whatever my salary was at the time. Within a year, I had my own fellowship and paid first for most, then for all my salary and fringe. However, I also knew that if I ran out of money, my boss could spot me if I was productive (or fire me if I was not). It is normal in any job that you can be fired if you don't produce or if the company goes out of business or closes down you unit. I also assumed that I was supposed to start writing grants as much as possible, since this is what would be required of me for the rest of my career. By the 5th year of my postdoc I had been promoted to a non-tenure track staff position and I made $63K. I should have made $75K as recommended for my position, but I needed money for exome sequencing, so I capped my own salary. I was comfortable, saving for retirement and paying my mortgage (in Boston, not in Iowa City), but had I had a child with a $1400/month daycare bill or even a car to take care of things would have been very very different. Then I started talking to friends who still made less than $40K after 4-5 years of postdoc, and friends at institutions that cap postdoc salaries at $50K so that you can never ever make more. Yes, yes, as a grad student in New York City, fresh off the boat from Europe, I was giddy for my $18,000 stipend, BUT in your mid-30s you need some sense of stability, you need to know that your work is valued and that your life is going somewhere. So I am shocked whenever PIs say that asking for $50K is too much. One of the most depressing thing that happened to me was when I got my first postdoc paycheck and it was only $200 more than my grad student one. Where had the extra $1,000/month gone? Damn you, FICA!! After all, one thing I learned in this great country that is America, is that you are worth what they pay you. No PhDs working for free, no 6-month in between postdoctoral fellowships when you have to go to lab anyways, like in the old country.

So the thing, Postdocs, is that you have to ask, because I find that most people don't ask nicely and venting on Twitter doesn't accomplish much. It only hit me recently that I was in a privileged position. That I was given clear guidelines and expectations, fair raises (including an annual review with a discussion about salary), a lab flush with cash and in addition, a very very strong office for postdoctoral development with constant seminars and workshops on grant writing, management, job talk delivery, you name it. And with "given" I don't mean as an unexpected gift and I was Oh, so lucky!, I mean that it was available to me and I took it and I worked like crazy to make sure I was successful. I had friends who asked for a $15K raise for childcare expenses and got it, and friends who asked and only got $5K, and friends who asked and got roped in writing a grant so that they could get the raise because there was no money. If your boss is an asshole and you lab is hell, you should just leave or start plotting your exit. In most cases, your boss is probably crazy busy and going insane trying to figure out how to keep the lab running. If they don't automatically offer mentoring, you should ask for it. I see myself as a good mentor, but I was in the middle of first R01 hell and I had an undergrad who made sure he scheduled regular meetings to talk to me. Every time I thanked him for being so proactive because my schedule was so crazy I would not have known how much time had passed. If your boss is not really the "mentorly" type, which is possible and still workable if they provide other assets, you find another mentor or better a group of mentors (see an older post on this). If career development workshops are not available at your institution, ask for them. Start a postdoc group at your university. Most likely some Associate Dean will be happy to give you $100 for pizza because they've been "meaning to do more for trainee development but have not gotten around to it". You cannot wake up in the middle of year 5 of your postdoc and realize that you are paid nothing, have never applied for a grant, work for a jerk and are all alone. Then you should just be angry at yourself. There was a great post today from Dr. Acclimatrix on learning how to fail better on the academic job market, which means that at least if you fail because you are unlucky and the market sucks you have done your homework and are a step closer to succeeding.

But then, be careful what you ask for, because you have no idea whatsoever of what's on the other side. You think you do, but you don't, because most of us in the corner office are doing their best to screen you from all the bullshit that goes on in our job, so that you can do your job. In some cases, we are probably too embarrassed about such bullshit to actually talk to you about it, because we are afraid to disrupt morale or to make you want to look for another job. As we freak out about our own career, life and family, we simultaneously freak out about the future of everyone in the lab. Because it's not my salary that keeps me up at night right now, it's my people's salaries. How long can I keep them? How much money do I need to bank if I don't get an R01 within a year? How do I buy them an extra 6 months of funding? A friend starting a lab recently asked me what I had learned about money management and I replied that all that matters is salaries (and mouse costs, but she's a zebrafish person, so she didn't care). So, part of me, also gets the angry PIs harping about an extra $10K expense. It's not easy on the other side when all you see is the bottom line getting smaller and smaller. There are multiple solutions, but trainees, PIs, universities and funding agencies have to work together to make things feasible and the government has to provide the money. I won't go into this, but if you have not, there are some really interesting suggestions originating from the U. Wisconsin Madison workshop on rescuing the biomedical workforce.