Thursday, September 17, 2015

A day in the life of a newish PI: Thursday September 17th

A couple of weeks ago I suggested a series of posts based on "a day in the life of a newish PI". The array of BS and of random things that a new investigator has to do is staggering and this is sometimes made unbearable by a generalized institutional inability to get anything done or anything fixed. Just yesterday, Dr. Acclimatrix tweeted

What is normal in academia? I am 2.5 years in and I don't know if my days are normal, or insane, or if I'm doing things I should not be doing. So I proposed I would log my activities during 3 days chosen by readers in the next 3 months. The days are September 17, October 1 and November 9. While I'll be traveling a lot this Fall, none of those days are travel/conference days, so they will be just run-of-the-mill lab management days. Let's see what happens and what random adventures will pop up! I would love if others decided to do this too to compare or if they commented about it.

8:00am. I know today is going to be super busy so after a good night's sleep I start with a 3mi run. I have a race on Sunday and I was crippled by running injuries all summer.  Since regular strength training wasn't helping, my PT guy dry needled the trigger points in my IT band last week and it was like magic! Running is the best way I have to deal with stress and increase energy on the job, so I'm really happy to be back in business.

9:00-9:30am. Phone interview with a job candidate for research assistant. I have discussed my experience with hiring in the past, so I will shamelessly plug my "Learning how to hire" series (#1, #2, #3, #4). But briefly, I have a script to follow for 20-30 min interviews, so that everyone answers the same questions. Also I cluster the interviews in 1-2 days to concentrate and reduce the pain of it. I'm doing 5 of these today.

9:30-10:00am. Get to work.

10:00-10:55am. Second phone interview. Emails piling up...couldn't get the candidate to stop talking.

11:00-11:30am. Third phone interview.

11:30-11:45am. Catch up with email. Trying to match my postdoc salaries to the NIH recommended as they are lagging behind the new guidelines. Going back and forth with my department chair, who's going back and forth with the associate dean.

11:45am-12:00pm. Run through the lab. Discuss pump malfunction in the fish room and remediation plans for repairs and water supply. Setting up new image analysis workstation and getting a desk upstairs from storage downstairs has been going on for a week now. Need to coordinate with Facilities about moving the desk.

12:00-12:30pm. Fourth phone interview.

12:30-1:30pm. When I scheduled all the interviews, of course, I had forgotten that today was the career mentoring day for one of my postdocs. I am planning a more detailed post, but every 1-2 months I take each person in the lab out for coffee or lunch to discuss career trajectory, strategy, plans or just to answer their questions. The goal is to avoid talking specific experiments/projects and focus on the bigger career development picture. One of the things we discussed today was the accounting that goes into planning salaries for the lab and the latest discussions on raising postdoc salaries, hiring staff scientists and promoting running a lab on one R01 .

1:40-1:50pm. Twitter.

1:50-2:00pm. Going over emails. Postdoc sent a list of plasmids to order for a project. I looked them over then recommended gene synthesis, because I hate cloning and inflicting cloning on other people.

2:00-2:10pm. Phone interview candidate not picking up the phone...Annoyed.

2:10-2:30pm. Using this half hour of freedom to 1) sign some requisitions for orders, 2) figure out that a ticket was in fact generated to get our new desk upstairs for the imaging station, 3) package a whole bunch of CRISPR primers I bought for our collaborator, so that I can send them to her.

2:30-3:00pm. Taking the chance to go down to our injection room with my tech to check that our second injector has been setup and to switch microscopes around. Bumped into Facilities manager and mover to discuss emergency water supply to fish room...and about moving the desk. Because the more people know about your problems, the likelier it is someone will solve them.

3:15-3:45pm. Our weekly seminar is sometimes held at an Affiliated Hospital (AH), which is hard to get to. I decided to go this week because I have been trying to pin down a collaborator at AH for months and I managed to schedule a meeting after the seminar. Naturally, collaborator emailed yesterday and cancelled, but I had already told people I would go and set up other meetings, so I got in a cab... I lost my phone a couple of weeks ago and I had nothing to do but stare out of the window for 30 mins...Yay!

3:45-4:00pm. Since I was early, I barged into the office of a colleague working on sexually dimorphic brain circuits to discuss our awesome new results. Sexually dimorphic behavior ensues when I asked him where he thought we should submit: he said Nature, while I was thinking of Nature Communications. Men are from Mars...

4:00-5:00pm. While I only marginally cared about the seminar and I just went to be a good citizen, it was actually pretty good. And it was basically the only scientific activity in my day.

5:30-7:30pm. The postdoc organization at AH asked me to be part of a career development panel next week. The organizers wanted to go out for drinks with the panelists and some other faculty to discuss what to expect at the panel discussion. Very fun and stimulating conversation.

8:00pm. Home. If I wanted to I could edit the postdoctoral application package of a former student, but I'm tired, so I'll do it tomorrow. I'll watch TV instead.

So, today was about management and mentoring and had very little to do with doing science or with anything I had done before becoming a PI. It was a day with a pretty heavy load of things, but I've had worse. What strikes me about this job is that I cannot honestly tell you what a typical day is, because every day is different. Today was a "busy non-science" type of day.  When you start a lab, it seems that this kind of day is all you get, but luckily these are getting rarer as I go on with this job. How was your day?

See additional "day in the life" posts from @FitAcademic on getting things done, @PsycGrrrl on fighting ignorance even when you are horribly sick and @bashir9ist who had a run-of-the-mill new investigator day filled with meetings, teaching, writing, ordering, etc..


  1. Yikes! So I know you said there is no such thing as a typical day, but on average, could you do your best to estimate what percentage of your days you spend doing science? Would these numbers be different if you did it over the past 2.5 yrs vs. just the past 6 mo?

  2. It depends on what "doing science" means. I consider writing papers and grants science as much as experiments. The first year there was an overwhelming majority of >50% administrative work days. Nowadays it's good day if it's 20% admin and management and 80% science. I didn't do experiments for a while, but this summer I got to get back and move some projects forward and establish some techniques on my own, so I had multiple days where I was doing around 50% experiments. I had to run a gel for the first time in years....I hate running gels...

    1. Yes, I think papers and grants are science, too :-) So these days, your "typical" day is 80% science 20% other? Because that, too me, sounds like on average, you spend 4 out of 5 days a week doing science -- do I have that right?

      Which would make this day that you described very atypical....

    2. But wait, that can't be right, because don't you teach at least 1 course?

    3. Yes, the day I described is in fact atypical lately, but it was typical earlier on. It is also much easier now than it was 2 years ago, because I know how to work the system. One of the reasons for the tracking exercise is actually to be more mindful of what goes on in my days. By my estimate this year the 80/20 days have been the majority which is nice. AND I'm at a medical school, so no, I don't teach an entire class, only graduate level lectures every now and then. I taught one class in August and I'm not teaching again until February. My effort is 95% on grants. This said, I'll need to pick up more lectures soon, and that will actually be part of the discussion in the October 1 "day in the life" which was picked on a day that has to do with teaching. :)

    4. "My effort is 95% on grants."

      If you don't mind, what does this mean exactly? Does this mean that you have to provide 95% of your salary from grants? And if you lose your funding, you only get 5% from the med school? Is this a typical arrangement with med schools? I'm in an engineering school (doing bioeng), and things work very differently here.

    5. In hospitals and medical schools 0 to 50% of your salary is guaranteed depending on the institution and you pay the rest. The most common number I've head is 30-40% salary. So, yes, if you lose your funding, your salary could be reduced drastically. It does take time as there are safeguards in place and also you could take up more teaching and other responsibilities to supplement. In addition to paying more than half my salary, I have grants that do not allow for salary, but I still have 5-10% effort on them. In that case the department allows what is called a cost-share and earmarks a portion of the salary they provide as dedicated to the effort on that grant. Basically, as my effort is tied up mostly on grants, in theory they could only ask me spend 5% of the time in teaching and service. Some places respect these percentages and some don't. Mine has been pretty good about it. At the same time it's in my interest to pick up more teaching and service for my portfolio....

    6. Thanks for answering my questions -- looking forward to the next posts on this!

      I will just add, not necessarily apropos of this post, that I really enjoy reading here. More so than Drugmonkey, Xyk, or other better-known science-career blogs. I'm very glad that there's someone at your level blogging, i.e., someone whose memory about being a postdoc or grad student is pretty fresh. I'm sure you have your flaws as PI or mentor (who doesn't?), but from where I'm sitting, I'd say your trainees are pretty lucky!

    7. Thank you for the encouragement! It always feels like by blogging I'm taking time away from science, but I find this community really useful and sometimes putting my thoughts on paper helps me too. :)