Wednesday, December 16, 2015

On finding "your people": who do you want your field to be?

I have written a lot about my confusion in defining my identity as a new PI. I work on a couple of different things and in both cases these projects require very interdisciplinary approaches requiring me to wear a lot of different hats. As I was finishing my postdoc I have written about branching out into new fields (here), and then as a new PI on trying to make your mark and be noticed (here) and struggling with a changing identity (here). A few things have happened lately that have made me think some more about this topic.

Many people told me that the first few years as a new investigator are the loneliest and most difficult, and I can confirm this has been true for me. I am starved for colleagues and scientific discussion and I feel very isolated, so I've been going to a lot of meetings (6-7) every year. In some cases I just go to see friends and catch up on the field, in others to try and learn new things, and in all of them I do my best to showcase what we are doing in the lab and make new connections to be become "established". Everyone says you feel better when you become "established", but what the heck does that mean?
Well, my interpretation at this moment is that you start becoming "established" when people recognize you for something you do as the expert in that topic and reach out to you for presentations and collaborations.

The path to this can be completely random. In the past two months I went to two meetings, one for each area in the lab, with very different expectations and opposite outcomes from what I was anticipating. Meeting one was supposed to be my big break. We have some very very exciting data on that project (probably the most exciting data I've had in my entire life), which I was going to present for the first time. All the movers and shakers were going to be there and I worked on my talk for almost a month. I reorganized, I practiced the talk multiple times. Everything had to be perfect. While I have met many of these people at one time or another, they don't "know" me, in the sense that they may vaguely remember me from some other meeting or seminar, and this was going to put me ON THE MAP. The outcome was not as expected. Most of the speakers only showed up for their session (some only for their talk) and left immediately. The whole set-up was very awkward so that there was no common space to mingle or eat. My talk was toward the end of the meeting, so only a handful of trainees and the attendees for the next session were there. It all kind of fizzled and I still feel like an outsider in that field. I was a bit dejected.
Meeting two was an afterthought. I had been invited to speak at a pre-meeting symposium by someone I had met at a conference a few years back, and since I've been trying to do some work in this field with one of my collaborators, I decided to stay for the actual meeting. I thought I would learn something and I brought my postdoc so that she could be exposed to the techniques. First of all the symposium was truly kick-ass, fun multi-disciplinary kick-ass science. But the most amazing thing is that I came away with multiple new collaborators, a spot in a multi-PI consortium, a new NIH program officer who wants my grants and a bunch of new contacts. It turns out I am the one person generating specific models that they need... It was the most science fun I've had at a meeting in a very long time. So, hum, who do I want my field to be? These guys (and gals, lots of awesome gals there). They share the same interest for questions I think are extremely important and understudied and want to help figuring things out.

I haven't truly turned my back on the group from the other meeting, but this whole story is just to say that vibes in different fields can be very different and it takes time to figure out who will end up being "your people". I did come back from this second meeting with a sense that now I'm "in" and that this is a really cool crowd I'd love to hang out with. Maybe I don't have to forge my career out of sheer willpower, but just find my tribe...

9 comments:

  1. Luminiferous aetherDecember 16, 2015 at 3:11 PM

    I anticipate being in a similar boat soon. I will be starting my own lab in a few months and my work has always (since grad school) straddled two areas. One is a disease area in the brain and the other is a focus on a particular molecular sub-field. Both areas have independent meetings although at some meetings there is a decent amount of overlap between the two. My goal is to become recognized as a leader in the disease area with expertise in the molecular sub-field. Consequently, those in the molecular sub-field may not see me as "one of their own", but that is okay with me. My POA is to work very hard the first 2-3 years and get a couple of solid senior author publications out that tell the "oldies" in the field that I have arrived. I feel that rather than focusing on meetings in the initial years, getting those couple major publications first and then presenting that work at every possible venue is the way to go. Would you agree? At this point that's what I am thinking would be the best plan, but I would appreciate suggestions from you and other based on real world experience as new PIs.

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  2. Well, l. aether, you got one thing right: you will be working very hard the first 2-3 years. And I sure hope that you will get a couple of solid senior author publications out. But let me give it to you straight: setting up a new lab and building a team of likeminded people will probably take 80% of your energy. And although everybody will keep asking you "so how are your papers coming along", I for one have come to accept that it is completely unrealistic to get 2-3 solid senior author ones if you start somewhere new and are working from scratch. You will be spending so much of your time on stuff you never even dreamed about (meetings, equipment failures, more meetings, university politics, teaching, putting out fires), that you will crash and burn if you try to do it all. Do I want to get out papers asap? Sure. Did reality catch up with me? Definitely. I have to side with the new PI here: building that network by going to meetings is what will keep you relatively sane. At the same time, setting up your own lab is tremendous fun, so good luck and enjoy it!

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts, BB! I know I'm being optimistic but it's good to aim high at the outset, eh? ;) On that note, I should clarify that I'm joining an independent research institute where there's no teaching (which I hear is a HUGE time sink), but the other stuff will definitely take my time. Another advantage is that I requested the space of someone who left recently and I got a decently equipped/set-up lab where I anticipate I can add a few things and start experiments within a couple of months. I dread the hiring-the-right-person part and that could make or break my ambitious goals...we'll see!

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    2. I do second BioBrains, especially on the stuff that you never dreamed about you had to figure out how to do (work orders for emergency plugs, figuring out what the heck HR is doing). You get to year 3 and you're like "What just happened? Where did all this time go?" I didn't teach at all in Year 1 and I taught like 3 lectures in Year 2. I published a couple of straggler papers from my postdoc and a collaborative paper, but my first solid paper from my own lab is taking form right now and if I'm lucky it'll be out at the end of Year 3. It's always good to be ambitious and I really wish you to achieve your goals, but don't get upset if it doesn't happen :)

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    3. Luminiferous aetherDecember 17, 2015 at 1:16 PM

      I will mentally prepare myself to brace for impact from my "over-ambitious" goals, which seems quite likely from your and BB's advice :) thanks for sharing your experiences, particularly about admin related stuff that as postdocs we know very little about, but should be aware of, and ready for, as we transition to faculty. I enjoyed your past posts very much and look forward to future ones.

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  3. OK, so slightly off topic but on the question of papers at the outset of your career: Should I, as a postdoc, concentrate on getting more papers out in decent society-level journals or aim somewhat higher (not all the way to Nature, though) and settle for fewer numbers of papers? Or maybe a mix? And is it 1st-author papers that really count, or total?

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    1. IMO, you aim as high as you can, but being mindful not to publish only once every 5-6 years. If it takes you 10 years to publish a Nature paper that doesn't bode well for the tenure clock. A big paper and a few nice smaller papers (some middle author) show productivity. 1st author papers count more then anything...and to tell you the truth papers are necessary, but grants will seal the deal.

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    2. I have to agree with the advice that grants will seal the deal (usually; I know some exceptions to this though). Aim for getting postdoc fellowship(s)..even foundation ones...and also work on obtaining a bridging grant if possible. As for papers, good society-level journals are always well respected, but anything higher will grab more attention. First author is what really counts though middle author papers show you can collaborate and work on teams. Most importantly, as a postdoc make sure you strike the right balance between productivity and journal prestige i.e don't publish multiple dump journal articles or waste a lot of your time chasing that elusive C/N/S paper.

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  4. I read your article in which you express your feelings as a Pi. I know this type of the experience is very hard and difficult to manage it. I learn about essayontime research paper from your harsh experience but what can we do because it is the way of the life.

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