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

1 comment:

  1. That OP by Nicola Spaldin was very cool. But, to be completely honest, she could have just as well not gotten tenure. There is danger in putting nearly all eggs in one basket early on the tenure track. The advice to leave the high-risk stuff for after tenure is not a bad one. It's only 5 years before your package gets in the process.

    OTOH, I operate much like you -- a jack of all trades, a master of one. I feel I am more nimble than others in my small community and I would say my group is one of the top 2-3 in it these days, with people taking our recent work as inspiration as we don't do what others do. So I love the work but the funding is always an issue. I have more ideas than time or money. And constantly moving into new fields, which I do, does have an impact on the citations as you are never one of the in-crowd in that field. I think this strategy will pay off in the 20-30 years post tenure time limit more than it does immediately. I hope.