Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 year in review for The New PI

And there is goes: 2016 in sucked, and I should have guessed from how it started, but I'm starting 2017 on the upswing and with a lot of hope :)
Happy New Year, everyone!!

January: This blog post has been brewing in my head for several months.
And a big one it was. By far my 2016 greatest hit with almost 4,000 reads...

February: The second R01 is done and it was very different from the first one.

March: Lately I have spent a lot of time thinking about expectations and "fit" in academia. We are interviewing faculty candidates and a huge amount of scrutiny is put in figuring out how their research and their personalities will fit with ours.

April: I'm official mid-tenure track and probably need to officially update my Twitter handle to The Newish PI.

May: With one R01 application waiting for additional experiments before resubmission and one R01 submitted, I received the dreaded email from the NIH saying that my ESI (early stage investigator) status had ended.

June: The hashtag #academicselfcare reminds you that it is your responsibility to take care of yourself, because academia will rarely do it for you.

August: "Midway upon the journey of the tenure track I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost." (adapted from D. Alighieri, Inferno, Canto 1)

September: The more I move forward in this crazy voyage which is the tenure track, the more I realize how absolutely critical your personnel is.
2nd greatest hit of 2016

October: My R01 resubmission went from scored to not discussed. I don't know why yet, but this hit me hard.

November: I never thought that these three little words could carry that much innuendo, but "Are you happy?" turns out to be one of the most revealing and difficult questions you can ask a scientist.

December: I cannot deny that 2016 has been an annus horribilis at the personal and professional level, but I am trying to find some meaning out if it.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Recapturing my spirit after 2016

I cannot deny that 2016 has been an annus horribilis at the personal and professional level, but I am trying to find some meaning out if it. If you have read my blog a lot of confusion and disillusionment and anger have transpired, people left my lab, grants eluded me and I became stuck in a dysfunctional situation with lots of amazing results and not enough people to do it. I felt a bit like being thrown back to the very beginning of my tenure track, but in the middle of year 4.

Yet, when I look at the year that is ending and the year ahead, the picture is not bleak and I have to thankful for it. I'm funded for 2017, so I don't really have to start thinking about possibly firing people or requesting bridge funding until this time next year. Despite everything that happened in 2016, my lab has published five papers (1 primary, 1 review and 3 collaborative), one manuscript was accepted, one more was rejected, two more collaborative papers are under review and two reviews and two large papers are at various stages of writing. So it's 8 articles in 2016 and at least 7 in the works for 2017. I am not trying to humblebrag. I need to acknowledge this to myself. I have at many points through this year felt stuck and unproductive, I felt that everything was lost and that I should just quit, while at the same time an enormous amount of work was getting done, not just by me, but by dozens of people around me. And because of this network, because of the people in my lab and my collaborators the train keeps running.

My proudest story of 2016 is about the paper that was just accepted. This was not in the cards for this year. I had found a couple mutations years ago, but apart from a gut feeling that this gene was the real deal, I didn't have enough evidence to move forward. I had entered the gene in a matching site. Yes, such a thing exists for rare disease genetics, where you get anonymously matched with other people "You're both interested in gene X. Would you like to meet in person?" In May I got a match, one more kid. We picked up the slack and started exploring the gene function in earnest. In June came another match. This time a large international group with multiple cases and a manuscript in preparation (we'll call this Group 2). When this happens and you are lucky enough to find out who the competition is, you roll your mutations into the bigger paper and move on, but the head of Group 2 was very nice "We are still finishing up some experiments, let's keep in touch and when we are ready you can join us or we can publish back to back." In July I start doing experiments like a dog and coordinating everyone in my lab to add results and Group 2 puts us in touch with their collaborators to get more data. Then a friend in the field emails me about someone else who is looking for mutations in the same gene, yet a third group working on this. Work intensifies to 150%, weeks are spent trying to understand what is going on, where everyone stands. Group 3 has more patients, great functional data, but not enough, so we join forces, co-write a kick-ass paper and submit back to back with Group 2. While the initial families had been recruited during my postdoc, I had recruited them and paid for sequencing, so I ask my postdoctoral advisor if he would agree to not be listed as a co-author to showcase that this work was done independently. He heartily agrees and fades into the sunset. Papers are in review for 2 weeks. Ours comes back with minimal comments. Group 2 gets slightly worse revisions, but we do everything we can to help and get them through. The two stories together are perfectly complementary, they have to come out together. We all get accepted! All collaborators around the world rejoice!! 26 institutions from 5 countries!!

This how I love to do science and I have stated it from the very beginning. Collaborative, open and fast because everyone speaks to each other. My holiday wish is that everyone would see the benefit of doing things like this. It's fun and you'll make a lot of friends along the way.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Are you happy? How a simple question can be loaded

I never thought that these three little words could carry that much innuendo, but "Are you happy?" turns out to be one of the most revealing and difficult questions you can ask a scientist.  I have encountered it in so many scenarios and it can provide a lot of information independently of the answer.

Let's look at some examples.
The genuine question: How are you doing? Say you are hanging at a social at a conference and a senior faculty you know well asks the question. Depending on how much you trust them you can tell the truth, half the truth, or lie, but this could be your chance to discuss issues you are having and get some mentoring and advice. If someone is truly interested in your well-being, you should take advantage of it, because at this day and age, we need all the help we can get to figure out academia, the job market, the funding agencies and just how to live life in the "post-truth" era...

The hidden question: Are you interested in moving? At the aforementioned social you bump into a faculty member whom you know marginally well or not at all. If they are looking for new faculty and are interested in what you do "Are you happy?" is the easiest way to gauge whether you would be moveable. Anything less than a resounding "I really am. I love it there." will give them a hint that there could be trouble in paradise. Of course the right answer is "Eh, I guess so", as "I hate that horrible place. Please get me out!" may not be the right strategy to find another university. Or to negotiate a killer start-up package.

The trick question: Say that you're okay! This happens when a senior faculty asks you the question in front of another senior faculty at your institution. At which point your brain is racing at a million miles an hour to regain composure and instead of glaring at them "Why are you putting me in this position?!", you quickly say yes and divert attention to how abysmal NIH funding is right now.

The probing question: Am I going to be happy? Very few people ask this all important question at job interviews, but I think it could be critical to figure out what is really going on at an institution. During interviews, the faculty you meet is in "recruitment mode" and has to show the best possible side of their university. The unhappy people are temporarily hidden in a closet. The people you will meet agreed to recruit and sometimes they couldn't say no, but if they are not happy, they have been hiding it. It will take a very skilled actor to crack a wide smile and answer "I love it here", if they are lying. Of course, you must take answers with a grain of salt. Some people are never happy, no matter where they are and recognizing the Debbie Downers may be difficult. But if someone changes the topic "I really like the city" and has nothing good to say, there may be a problem. If multiple people hesitate before answering, there may be a problem. And in some cases, people who are moderately happy may volunteer some of the issues they are encountering, which, if you decide to take the job, will prepare you in advance. All universities have some kind of issue, but coming in with some idea of what to expect may help.

Hope this helps to find your happy place...

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Requiem for my 2016 dreams

My R01 resubmission went from scored to not discussed. I don't know why yet, but this hit me hard. My program officer had been very supportive of the first submission and had given me specific advice on how to address the reviewers' comments. We did a year of work and added everything they requested adding all the modifications they wanted. In this day and age you cannot ever think a grant will get funded, but I was sure it would get scored, that by following the instructions of the PO and the study section I would be able to adjust my aim (pun intended) and at least improve.

I was utterly shattered. Shattered because of the self-doubt that no matter how much work I put into it, I will never make the cut. Shattered because after submitting at 3 consecutive NIH cycles, I do not have the strength left in me to pull together a brand new application for February. But then, after the initial shock, I realized I was shattered mostly for one reason, that my dream of going back to the job market this cycle has been quashed. I have been very unhappy for a long time and each NIH submission comes with added weight that, in addition to possibly getting me tenure and bringing some stability to the lab, an R01 may start the process of breaking me out. I don't like who I am right now: exhausted, angry, frazzled, always rushing, so busy that I don't have the time to mentor my people as I would like, and most importantly so mentally drained that I cannot take the time to enjoy the science any more. This is not who I want to be. I don't want to feel a weight in my chest every day when I walk into my lab building. I hate that my happiest moment every month is when I walk out to leave for a trip. This is hurting my lab, my science and my health.

The reasons why I want to quit are the usual ones: I don't feel like the university is the right fit for me, I feel isolated, ungrounded and organizational issues make my life impossible. Some issues I could have figured out during the interview process, if I had known which questions to ask, but others evolved over the years. Things keep getting worse, instead of better, and at some point I disenfranchised myself, I stopped trying to affect change. I have been running so that the endorphins get me through the day, but I've been riddled with injuries for the past year. I have tried to run through the pain as much as possible, but the pain right now is too much even to do yoga. So not running has also contributed to declining mental health.

Which brings me to a reality of academic life. A lot of our stress in addition to practically having to run a small business for an education corporation, comes from the length of our transitions. Getting a faculty job takes 1-3 years and this alone generates sustained stress, which can be become punishing of you are in a difficult situation. Transitioning to an alternative career can also take a while because new skills may be necessary. I am writing things that you are not supposed to write, because I have spoken to a lot of friends about my situation and theirs, and I know I am not alone. I think this is, in a way or another, similar to how a lot of your faculty feel right now, and many examples were given in a Nature feature on early career researchers this week. I wish I had a solution. I wish I didn't think that our generation may be lost. The worst part is that everyone I talk to is so upset that we are all amplifying each others' emotions to the point that talking to friends does more harm than good.

Being upset and angry at this point is crippling and counterproductive. A year and a half ago, when I realized I really needed to get out, I put down on paper what I want in my life and road map to reach my goals, so I went back to read that. I realized I had given myself a deadline which is still in the future, and I still think it is reachable. So, what to do now? I made an appointment with a sports medicine doctor. I found the contact of a good therapist in the hope that they can help me develop better strategies to deal with work for another year and help me figure out whether academia is really what I want. But most importantly, I need to find a way to regain my love of science...and to do that I need to engage more with the people in my lab and take my time to actually think, read and do science. A friend who just came out of study section told me "Getting grants is a lottery. The name of the game is resilience." I'll work on that and see what happens in 2017...

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The emotional toll of the "NIH running wheel"

There are few posts in my queue right now, that will never see the light of day. They were born our of anger and confusion and anxiety laced with a hint of depression. I suffered from severe pre-menstrual depression my entire life, and until I found the right medical team, every time I randomly felt despair and the desire to curl up in a ball and wail, I had to ask myself two questions: "Is this emotional reaction appropriate to the current events in my life? What day of the month is it?" If the reaction was "not appropriate", I usually had to ride out the next 24-48 hours before my brain magically reset itself back to normal (Someone should study this, because it's crazy fast. Literally like a curtain lifting). So as my life started spiraling out of control in the past few weeks, my safety questions came back to me with a slight variation "What time if the year is it?"

While it's a different cycle, the NIH cycle is as bad as the menstrual one. Especially, if you are on the running wheel of submitting a grant every cycle, which means having a grant reviewed every cycle as you are writing the other one. I haven't quite recovered from the meltdown in June (post here), which was on the heels of the February one, and here comes the October deadline. Last cycle my R01 was due the same day the other R01 was being reviewed. This time I'm on three R21s for October. Yup, you've heard this right. Three. And my R01 is being reviewed at the end of the October. Because for some reason, all my study sections tend to cluster as close as possible to the resubmission date, so that there is no hope I could skip a cycle. As my other funding gets close to the end, and the pressure increases for keeping the lab going, every grant generates more and more anxiety. The more you submit, the more it feels like there is no rhyme or reason and you just have to do your absolute best and hope that your proposal will fall in the right hands. The closer the study section date gets, the more you start second guessing what you have already sent in and you find all the flaws in your mind. Positive thinking and negative thinking run a strange relay in your head, when you want to believe the grant will be funded, but you want to prepare yourself for the worst at the same time, so you kind of go for the middle ground "All I want is a score!" I hate you running wheel!! (Waving fist to the sky)

So more and more yoga. And maybe I should pick up Transcendental Meditation...or drinking. What I should really be doing now, is writing.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Tales of postdocs past: what did I learn?

The more I move forward in this crazy voyage which is the tenure track, the more I realize how absolutely critical your personnel is. I have posted recently about some setbacks in my lab and having to pick up the pieces after some unexpected departures. Some of my readers wanted some more detail. I am not going to go into specifics too much. What I can say is that this year I have lost all three postdocs, each for a different reason. One was not a good fit and decided to quit before I had to drop the axe, one was poached away from a biotech company, and one had to leave because of family obligations. None if them had reached the three year mark in their tenure and none of them will be able to see their major project to completion. The saddest part of this is that one was awarded an NRSA fellowship from the NIH and we had to give the money back. Just the thought to give money back to the NIH makes my heart sink every time! I had to do my best to apologize to the program officer with the hope that this will not held against me in the future.

I have been racking my brain trying to figure out why this happened. Whether in addition to extraordinary bad luck, there is something that I have done to make the environment inhospitable, or to just pick the wrong people for the job. The thing is, at least two were not wrong. Between the two of them, they produced data for at least four good papers in two years. So what would make a productive scientist with exciting data, give up? Part of me is afraid that they see what I am going through, despite my desperate attempts to screen them from the vast majority of what I have to do, and they realize that they do not want my job. Another part of me thinks that, because I do so much career development and planning in the lab, I am pushing them to explore alternative careers and shooting myself in the foot at the same time. Yet, I had so many conversations with friends on whether it is even moral to hire postdocs nowadays and tell them that a career in academia is the only option. Getting into the ivory tower is harder and harder, and once you are in, it does not get easier. As a mentor, I cannot and I will not leave them ill-prepared for what is out there.

My question is: Could this have been avoided? When I think about what pushed me forward all these years, don't laugh, it all comes down to my postdoctoral theme song. Yes, I have theme songs. My PhD song was Fighter by Christina Aguilera (if you listen to it, think as if it was addressed to my thesis committee. It'll be funny). My postdoc and current song is Remember the Name by Fort Minor. The key here is the refrain: "This is ten percent luck, twenty percent skill/fifteen percent concentrated power of will/five percent pleasure, fifty percent pain/and a hundred percent reason to remember the name". If this doesn't describe academic science, I don't know what does. The "concentrated power of will" bit in particular, because there are days that razor-sharp uncompromising concentrated power of will is the only thing that makes me to get out of bed and keeps me going. I see it in many of my colleagues and I wonder whether this attribute, more then anything else, is what keeps academia afloat. A semi-deluded cultish sense that "I will not ever stop asking questions and pushing forward". I don't know whether you have to be born with it or whether it can be cultivated. I have not trained enough people to know and I have not figured out ways to test it. Hope Jahren in her autobiography Lab Girl describes a Good Cop/Bad Cop routine where every new student is made painstakingly label hundreds of tubes for sample collection, and then put through a lengthy discussion on the project for said tubes that ends in all the tubes going into the trash. If, instead of moping, the student responds to the exercise by happily labeling tubes for the "new and improved" project, s/he is a keeper.

How do you find someone with skill, power of will, luck and high pain tolerance? Is this really what it takes? I cannot fault any of my former people, because in the end they decided what was best for them. But, if the current funding climate is pushing promising young people out, how do I reset my expectations for running the lab?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Redefining expectations: I'm a PI now.

Today should have been a good day...
A very nice review article which took a lot of effort in the past couple of months was accepted and for the first time I saw my name in print in Science. Granted this was my collaborator's paper, so it's not from my lab, but it's pretty sweet CV padding. My department chair will like it. Plus, one of my postdocs told me about some pretty spectacular data which we are hoping will lead to a major publication from my own group. Yet, I was miserable and almost closed my office door to curl in the fetal position and cry. And know one thing, reader, I'm not the type of person who cries. When I cry, people who know me tend to freak out, because something major must be catastrophically wrong.

The Shining screenplay.  By William Beutler  [CC BY 2.0
via Wikimedia Commons" 
So, what is so wrong? This summer multiple people quit the lab, leaving me understaffed and we need to finish a paper, so I had to get back to the bench and step in to help with experiments. This paper/project is under very strong competitive pressure and through false information I thought we were getting scooped, so I have put in back to back 80hr weeks to try and finish it. I have been mostly alone in the lab up to 10-11pm every day. We have done a lot of stuff, but one critical experiments will be delayed by a couple of weeks because I overlooked some details and some things need to be redone. I have regressed...I'm back to my grad school hours, occasionally wearing my grand school clothes, feeling the pressure of my life and my lab depending on this project. And then it hit me. "What am I doing? I'm not in grad school! My life and my lab do not depend on this project. I'm supposed to be writing 2 grants on the other super cool project my postdoc was telling me about."

If we cannot finish experiments in time I had already agreed with our collaborators that we will fold our data into their paper instead of going back to back. And then I will have a ton of extra data to get a lovely study out. My postdoc's project, which will be finished in the next month, will lead to another paper. And this second project is more likely to get me tenure than anything else I'm doing. Plus we just published in Science...Why was I upset, again?

I was upset because I fell into the mental trap of putting all my professional eggs in one basket. As a student and postdoc this is a common trap, thinking that your career depends on one project, one major paper, one checklist item checked off after another. Getting stuck in an obsessive rut that your life sucks. The thing is, it doesn't. This is all in your head. There are multiple career paths and multiple ways of moving forward. But when you work so much that you need to prop yourself up to keep going and you're exhausted, you're bound to flawed thinking. I'm not a postdoc, I have 6 or 7 baskets at the moment and I have to decide how to distribute my eggs. I have neglected my physical and mental health for this project, and I am too worn out to deal with anything else. This was a mistake. I cannot carry the entire lab on my shoulders and finish every single experiments and run everything. This is not sustainable. Sometimes, all you need is a change of prospective...regroup and objectively see where you stand. Objectively, things are going pretty well and I should just go on vacation.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

"Midway upon the journey of my tenure-track..."

"...I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost." (adapted from D. Alighieri, Inferno, Canto 1)

The past week has been tough, but also a recuperative one, desperately trying to gather some energy both physical and emotional to deal with pulling the lab together one more time. I have been battling burnout for months, but I was fighting to keep one of the projects in the lab alive. Due to a couple of toxic hires part of the project was recently scooped and another big part is under extreme competitive pressure. Because the bad hires are now gone, I need to pull a paper out of thin air by myself working with some of the new people who just joined the lab.

Despite this I was finally starting to feel secure in my tenure track, I was going to pull this project together and another big part of the lab was running smoothly with the promise of continuity. The goal of having a cohesive body of work by year 5 (1.5 years away) seemed possible. It finally felt like the lab was hitting a positive stride after being wobbly in the Spring. Then multiple disasters hit in rapid succession. One R01 application which had taken an ungodly amount of energy to coordinate and pull together fell flat leading the Program Officer to recommend to just write another grant. Samples I had been trying to secure for months failed to materialize killing a whole new exciting direction in the lab. Then I found out that all the personnel leading the only viable project we have is going to be gone by the end of next month without any of the papers being completed. WTF?!

Now I have to run the lab, deal with a packed travel schedule for the Fall and be primarily responsible for 4 major publications with no manpower or manpower with limited expertise. I feel like I'm standing on a boat watching my projects drown and having to decide which one should be saved, because I cannot possibly try to rescue them all. It's heartbreaking and a little terrifying. "What if I pick the wrong one?" Year 3-4 in the tenure track is that defining moment where you feel like your career should take off and as I was preparing to take that leap, I was hit by ton of bricks. I am gasping for air.

In the middle of all this, I got to take break thanks to a conference tied in with a visit to a friend's institution and to my old postdoctoral lab. And the upshot from talking to multiple friends was "Boohoo, this happens to everyone." "If this was easy, everyone could do it." "You think you have it bad, my student graduated and went to Nepal for 6 months with no email access." So basically, shut up, get your shit together and finish the papers. God, this job is hard! I'm realizing that to just survive you have to be made of steel. The more I go on, the more I feel the steel getting tempered.  At the same time it seems like everything is going against my generation: the crazy-low funding rates, the scarcity of jobs. We were sitting at this meeting watching talks from fancy HHMI investigators presenting 20 transgenic mouse lines and we were just like "Sure, I could do that if I had the money, but I don't, so I can't"...and watching these massive projects, you wonder if in your little lab with a revolving door of trainees (some good, some bad), you will ever be able to do something significant. Or even if this roller-coaster of emotions will ever stop.

In any case, back in the lab shit must be pulled together, projects must be finished, so I need to get back to the bench full time and everything else will have to wait. As Winston Churchill once said "Success always demands a greater effort". So 150% effort, here I come!

Thursday, June 30, 2016

When your trainees get grants everyone wins!

There is nothing quite as exciting as your trainee getting their own money. Apart from the obvious financial benefit to the lab and a lessening of the burden to support everyone's salary and fringe, the real relief is that you start feeling like the lab is viable and that you are actually considered as an independent scientist by your peers. Of course, getting an R01 form the NIH is the litmus test of your peers believing in what you do, but fellowships are a sign that you are deemed worth to train the next generation. The projects in the lab have enough legs to bring in money for multiple people. The trainee is happy, you are happy. Everyone wins!

So new PIs do not think believe those who say that you need to be established or have an R01, to get your lab peeps funded. Write a comprehensive mentoring plan identifying training objectives AND find an experienced co-mentor, then keep trying. I like this list from Berkeley to get you started.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Remembering academic self-care

The Scream - E. Munch (Google Art Project)
The hashtag #academicselfcare reminds you that it is your responsibility to take care of yourself,
because academia will rarely do it for you. Multiple people, including the wonderful @IHStreet, have spoken bravely of the struggles with psychiatric illness we encounter as academics. It's not clear whether the constant stress eats away at our well-being or whether scientists are just more neurotic because of their constantly inquisitive nature. Many if not all of us, at some point will deal with unbearable stress, lack of self-worth, depression and anxiety.

As far as depression goes, I think I have the best kind. It comes linked to major life events or hormonal changes and once identified, it is rapidly improved by standard medication. After multiple years of therapy, I'm pretty good at figuring out what is going on. Basically the drill is "Why am I so hopeless?" "For how long have I felt hopeless?" "Oh, maybe serotonin has gotten a bit wonky and needs a boost. I need to talk to someone about this." Exercise has also been very good at dealing with this when I feel things are not quite right. As I said, the best kind.

Still as lucky as I think I have been, depression is not an easy thing to go through and you cannot just "pick yourself up and snap out of it". It has impacted multiple years of my life and nowadays I monitor its comings very closely. For some reason the winter messes with me (cough, SAD, cough) and the summer NIH deadline has had me staring right down the abyss the past few years. I have very strong feelings about my future depending on how well I can convince a random group of invisible people. This winter was particularly bad for personal and professional reasons and I started wondering whether I'm burning out. A recent Harvard Business Review article on incipient burnout quoted
- "emotional exhaustion: feeling used up emotionally, physically and cognitively"  CHECK
- "easily upset and angered, have difficulty sleeping" CHECK
- "depersonalization, feelings of alienation and cynicism toward your job"  CHECK
- "capacity to perform is diminished as is your belief in yourself" CHECK

This sounds dangerously like some aspects of depression and for me one leads readily to the other. Since there are some actual problems that need to be solved in my job and life, what matters most is that I am healthy enough to do it. So, it's #academicselfcare time! I have not had an actual vacation (when I'm not writing a grant or doing a substantial amount of work on the side) in something like 18 months and I do not remember the last time I had a two-day weekend. The summer I started my postdoc I pledged I would take both Saturday and Sunday off each week for two months. The first weekend I just sat at home and watched 12 hours of TV each day because I had no idea how to plan weekend activities any more. Things are not as bad now as in grad school because I have learned to introduce downtime whenever I need it, but I feel like I need to get back to a regimented rest schedule. Once you become a professor, it is very easy to move things that need writing and thinking to the weekend because your day is so fragmented and interrupted by random things, you cannot find 2-3 hours of peace. So if you want to have downtime in the evening, you move certain chores to the weekend. The thing is, I just need to lock people out and protect my time during the week.

Here I pledge that I will have full weekends (and maybe 3-day weekends) in July and August, that I will plan a couple of kick-ass trips and that I will carve out some time every week to write and read (OMG, read!?) and do science-work that will actually push my research program forward. Oh, yes and get back to exercising regularly.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The first rule of Academic Speakeasy...

Academic Speakeasy will be a monthly appointment to privately and anonymously discuss academic life and struggles (see blog post). This is how it's going to work.
  • 5 minutes before chat start time @Professor_Chat will post the link and password for the Niltalk chat room 
  • you can choose whatever name you like: your real name, your Twitter handle or a different name every single time
  • in the chat room DO NOT CLICK the "Dispose" button. Niltalk is set up so that every member can cancel the chat at any time. Please, let the moderators do that
  • we will chat for an hour or less about the topic (for the first time about how to set up)
  • be courteous, be constructive and feel free to share
  • the Niltalk chat will be destroyed as soon as it ends and no record will be kept
If you are also interested in an open chat on Twitter post topics on @Professor_Chat and we'll try and make it happen.

How do we build a secret advice network for scientists?

In the past few years I posted several times about the struggles I'm facing in academia. I am always
really scared of putting my thoughts out there, but the thought that this could help other people always make me click on the Publish button. The responses have been in general very positive expressing support and gratitude for sharing. While we often believe that we are unique snowflakes in our sorrows, we really are not and many scientists at different stages of their career have similar problems.

Multiple times on Twitter and on the blog people have expressed the need for a forum to meet and talk about our professional issues. I am fortunate to have a good cohort of new investigators who meets regularly to discuss what is going on and come up with hacks to get around administrative hurdles. But there are thoughts I cannot share with colleagues at the same university and sometimes I would like to learn how things are at other places or how different people solve problems.

After some thought on how to do this and some discussion with @drosophilosophy, aka Tim Mosca, who most recently raised the issue, we really like the format of Diversity Journal Club #DiversityJC on Twitter (run by the awesome @Doctor_PMS, @IHStreet and @DrEmilySKlein). They set a time once a month to discuss an issue on Twitter. Since Twitter is still a public forum, I have been looking for a private password protected chat room and I discovered Niltalk. Niltalk allows you to create a password for a room that exists for only 2 hours and then gets deleted forever. Think of it as a speakeasy! Users can be completely anonymous or not, as they prefer. We can just set a date and time, decide on a topic or a couple of topics and open as many chats as we like. Each topic should have a moderator (myself, Tim or ideally the person proposing the topic would be willing to moderate). There could also be a monthly chat on Twitter about academic career development, with a common hashtag like #profchat and this could be storified to provide a more permanent record.

I'll start one tomorrow June 1th at 10pm EST (7pm PST) just to see how it works and start the conversation. Link for the chat room and password will be posted on Twitter at 9:55pm on a dedicated Twitter account @Professor_Chat
Come hang!!

Friday, May 27, 2016

How do you know when to change and not quit?

I have been thinking a lot about quitting recently. As I wrote in a very hopeful post the day before I started my faculty position, thinking about quitting is part of my process. I have considered alternative careers since I was in college and I have become accustomed to chose my job every day. I am going to work because I want to, because there is nothing else that I would rather do. Sometimes things get so hard, that you question your choices and wonder whether whatever you are doing is really what you should be doing with your life.

I was looking for articles or blog posts about transitions in academia and I found a whole lot about quitting. There is a great article on Vitae that summarizes some of the views of the so called academic Quit Lit which they collected in a handy Google doc. (Warning: you should read these posts only when you are in a good mood or in the company of a good bottle of Scotch)

However, what if you should not change careers altogether, but are just unhappy where you are?
Sometimes we mistake profound dissatisfaction with our current situation with having chosen the wrong profession, but this is not necessarily true. Throughout my training, I have met people who just needed to be somewhere else and did not necessarily fit where they were. Someone who started a PhD in Neuroscience and switched to Computer Science to another university. Multiple people who were in the wrong thesis lab or the wrong postdoc lab. When you think everything is hopeless and you are stuck, this is hardly ever the reality. You are never ever stuck unless you're in jail without the possibility of parole, but then you have other problems than deciding what to do with your PhD.
You can be unhappy for a multitude of reasons:
- your job is toxic and your boss is a monster who makes everyone cry;
- your job is great/okay, but the rest of your life sucks;
- your job is okay, but you do not have the right resources for advancement.

It boils down to this. You institution/lab can 1) destroy your career, 2) allow your career or 3) support your career. If you're in position #3, great for you! Stop reading and go do something fun. If you're in position #1, you need to come up with an exit strategy stat! In the best case scenario you are a year 1-2 grad student or postdoc and you can exit gracefully to find another lab. In the economy of your life, 1-2 years mean nothing. Trust me. If you are more advanced, you need to discuss with trusted colleagues and mentors how to best position yourself to get out. A good number of people will be in position #2, some things are okay, some things are not, so you're not sure what to do. Science has a lot of ups and downs. You may just need to sit down and figure out the pros and cons of your situation. A senior mentor recommended a very good strategy. Make a list of every single thing that is important to you in your life and your work, for example, good colleagues or good museums. Then as you consider moving, rank the new cities and universities for each of the criteria (this may require research). The perfect university/perfect city match may not exist, so you must decide what you can live with and what you really want. It may turn out that where you are is the best compromise or that you can ask for something to change to make things better. If not, you use your network to start figuring out how to move somewhere higher on your list. Academia can be for life, but does not have to be a life sentence.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Where the New PI tries a time management exercise

I have multiple posts at various stages, but lately the time is lacking. I feel exhausted and unproductive, being pulled in a hundred different directions while I need time to focus and write an R21 and an R01 in the next 6 weeks. While barely keeping my head above water, I've been on Twitter sporadically, but yesterday I caught a couple of posts about time management. In one, which I can't find anymore because I forgot to bookmark it, the author was describing a time-management exercise. You make a spreadsheet of your day in 30min intervals and log what you do for some time. I have tried in the past to use different online time management tools to figure out where my days go, but I always forget to turn on or off the timer. I thought this more gross approximation of where time goes would be easier, so I will try for a week or maybe a month.

I have decided on simple categories: research, service, teaching and administration for work, exercise, TV, social, culture and sleep for myself. I have multiple questions in mind.
1) Simply put, how many hours a day and a week do I really work?
2) I feel like I have an inordinate amount of administrative work to do or followup on and I've been spewing random numbers when complaining about it. How much of my day is actually spent doing someone else's job?
3) Am I doing too much or too little service?
4) Can I make sure I exercise at least half an hour each day?
5) Am I happy with my activity distribution or do I want to make changes?

The first day was very informative. I worked 9.5 hours with a 1 hour break in the afternoon, because lunch was eaten during a seminar. 60% was actual research work, either writing or discussing experiments, 31% was some kind of service dealing with someone else's faculty candidate and reviewing grants. Only 9% was admin. I put in my half hour walking to work this morning, so now I feel justified going home and crashing on the couch...

I am curious now and I will report how it goes...

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Maintaining your ESI status...

With one R01 application waiting for additional experiments before resubmission and one R01 submitted, I received the dreaded email from the NIH saying that my ESI (early stage investigator) status had ended. I was sad and wondered what would happen to my lab that the extra bump in percentile for funding is gone. Since I have never had an R01 the New Investigator status still holds, but it's institute dependent and not as codified as the ESI.

The fact that ESI status depends on the date your PhD was conferred is a real issue as people stay longer and longer in their postdoc position. All candidates we interviewed in our latest faculty search had started their postdocs 2007-2009, so their ESI bump could end as early as next year. I was talking to a friend about this and actually found out that things are not as black and white. With some planning you can maintain your ESI past the dreaded deadline.

It turns out your application is listed as ESI as long as you SUBMIT before the ESI ends, so, phew, my currently submitted R01 will be regarded as ESI-eligible. Not only...

For individuals who are still New Investigators at the time of resubmission of the A1 application, there is a 13 month period during which the New Investigator can submit the A1 resubmission application to retain ESI status. 

This means that you have 1 year to resubmit your application and will still maintain ESI status. So, my first R01 application will still be considered ESI if resubmitted in July 2016 AND my second R01 application will remain ESI until March 2017...a full year after my ESI status ended.  Of course the ESI advantage will disappear if R01 #1 is funded, but it's nice to know that I have multiple chances. I had no idea that any of this was in place before I started my lab and most of your senior advisors do not know either. But this could be make all the difference in your funding!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

How much of your own money do you spend for a (new) lab?

Lately I started keeping track of how much of my personal money has been used for the lab and started thinking of all the reimbursements I never requested. Through some administrative breakdowns I was owed several thousand dollars in reimbursements for almost 6 months, which annoyed me to no end and made me more weary of "donating" money to the university. Then I took a business trip someone else paid for, and we stayed and ate at places I wouldn't even consider on my own dime.

I believe that you have to be very conscientious when spending grant money. As a postdoc, I have always been careful is finding the cheapest hotel and being thrifty, but I still used to turn in every single receipt for meals and transport, etc. When I started my own lab things changed. My PI salary was substantially higher, my quality of like improved and I started paying for things myself. Sometimes I bought he odd item our ordering department was giving me trouble for, but mostly I started paying for all my meals and transport during business trips, plus lunch for the lab and various celebrations. I justified it with the fact that it would be coming from my start-up funding, that I would be eating anyways independently of where I was, and I'd rather keep that money as long as possible for reagents and other things. However in the long run it adds up, especially when you go to a lot of meetings like I do. I didn't even realize until this year that I can actually detract all those expenses from my taxes, so I gave up more money than I thought. I started tracking all my business expenses for 2016 and in 3 months I'm already at $1,000 I do not plan to submit for reimbursement.

Now I'm starting to wonder whether this behavior is naive and hurtful. Why should I spend my own money? Why am I not saving that money for my mortgage or retirement? Is there really going to be a return for investing this money in the lab and my career?

I think this again goes back to the idea of considering the lab like a small business. As the owner I make all the sacrifices. At the moment I am not hurting for money and I could pay for all the things I don't get reimbursed. But a part of me thinks that every meal I save is a piece of a conference a year for now or part of someone's future salary. Yet, multiple people I know spend liberally for things like these. What is right? I would really appreciate if other investigators commented about this and how they go about it.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Third year review. The lab turns 3!

I'm official mid-tenure track and probably need to officially update my Twitter handle to The Newish PI. @Scitrigrrl hit the nail on the head in her post last year about being a third year faculty (here). You just learn to do more. More and more teaching piles up because people are no more afraid to ask and get nixed by your chair. More and more people join the lab and projects and side-projects crop up. More grants and papers must be written or reviewed. Colleagues start asking you to help on their projects and join their grants.  You get asked to do things you didn't know you were supposed to do and you pick up some other chores because it looked like a good idea at the time.

So I'm officially stretched to the limit. Three years have passed, my R00 ended yesterday and I need to start making very definitive plans for assembling a tenure portfolio. I have been relatively successful at getting foundation grants, growing the lab and getting a few decent papers out, but the bottom line is that I NEED AN R01. I will be able to stay alive until the end of 2017 with current grants and startup, but R01 funding is necessary for further survival, tenure and new opportunities. I have two applications at various steps of review/resubmission, so the path to follow is to keep going in at every cycle, do everything the reviewers ask and try my luck again and again.

The problem is that R01 applications are incredibly draining. You know, I do really love writing. And I love writing grants, but the emotional burden which comes with an R01 application has been something new to me. That sense that your entire future depends on it, that a group of random people you cannot control will read it and maybe not understand it, that you are working like a dog and it is probably all for naught, that your grants office will come up with some random way to mess it up. It is exhausting. I am still recovering from the February submission and I have to start thinking about June.

In parallel, all the dozens of tasks listed above are due, and taking time off to write leads to the fear that if you are not on top of things, there will be a lull in productivity. Last year, one of my resolutions for year 3 was to push trainees to be more independent and I have at least partially succeeded. Until you realize the amount of turnover a young lab can go through. On one project I have a fully functional team which can train its own new people, the other is a bit of a mess and I have had to start over pretty much every semester. I manage to get scraps of work done in very small increments where every temporary person does one little piece, which will eventually constitute a tassel in the finished mosaic, but my bandwidth is limited. I am always worried that that part of the lab will die. Productivity on the grants supporting it has been scarce. Yet, the grants are getting close enough to the end that hiring new people feels like a gamble. I am dragging a couple of papers to completion and they are kicking and screaming that they do not want to go on...Is my three year old project turning into a threenager? And if so, should I stand aside and ignore the tantrum, pick it up and drag it along, or just abandon the silly monster by the side of the road?

I guess these are the issues you deal with in Year 4 and 5, when you are forging a career and have to pick and choose directions. When is it time to drop something and move eggs in a different basket? Which project will end up being written up for a grant? And most importantly is the lab a living independent entity which can go on on its own when I'm traveling doing the PR job I need to do?

We will see. The only thing I know right now is that I really really need a vacation...

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Defining expectations in academia: pushing a square peg in a round hole

Lately I have spent a lot of time thinking about expectations and "fit" in academia. We are interviewing faculty candidates and a huge amount of scrutiny is put in figuring out how their research and their personalities will fit with ours. I assume the same goes on on the other side: "How do I like this department?" "What would it be like to work in this department/university?""Will I be successful here?" "Will I be happy?"

When you start a faculty job at an R1 institution you have some basic expectations: 1) that you will be given sufficient money and space to start you lab and do your job; 2) that you will have administrative support to hire people; 3) that you will get help submitting and managing grants; 4) that you may be protected from teaching at the beginning or that you may be able to buy out some classes; 5) that if things break down someone will fix them relatively quickly or at least that you will have water and electricity (especially emergency power); 6) that your department chair has your best interest at heart. Then, not necessary, but relatively important, you may hope 7) that your department chair will be doing their very best to support you financially and politically when needed; 8) that your colleagues will be collegial and collaborative; 9) that the students at your new school will be smart and engaged; 10) that the dean will not abruptly change and deny you tenure because "psych, new rules!".

Then you start you job, maybe at your dream school. As you start renovating, hiring, applying for grants, managing money, mentoring and teaching you find out that some of your expectations are not met. Maybe a lot of your expectations are not met. And you wonder, how is this possible? How can this school actually function? You are ashamed you have been duped, and then you talk to friends and pretty much EVERYONE is going through the same thing or worse. Because the Russians always know how to best describe gloom, I'll misquote Tolstoy "All happy universities are alike; each unhappy university is unhappy in its own way". Every university has a unique set of problems and you have to decide what you are willing to put up with. Is complete administrative breakdown acceptable? Partial administrative breakdown? Is a confrontational chair who laughs at you when you get an R01 and ask for space acceptable? Is no respite from teaching when you're supposed to get grants acceptable? And if your situation is not acceptable, do you put your head down and keep going? Or should you just pack your bags and leave? The answer is not that simple. What you consider a horrible situation may be a perfectly good fit for someone else. You talk to your friends and their tales of woe are so terrible that you rethink your puny problems.

The existential conundrum is the same in any type of job. How much are you willing to settle? In general, as a group, scientists are not people who settle... But at some point you have to figure out what is negotiable and what is not. What you can live with and what chews up your soul from the inside. If you could jump around different companies every 1-3 years like people in other industries do, you'd have a chance to identify specific things you need. However, since our hiring process itself is 1 year long and only happens when you are "ready", you may end up feeling trapped and getting even more frustrated. It is such a tricky process. Does the dream job exist? Or does the grass just appear greener somewhere else and you should be happy with the grass you have?

I personally think that if you are not in a supportive environment, you should rethink where you are, but "support" can mean many things to many people. It can mean a good boss, it can mean no teaching ever, it can mean good admin help, it can mean water and power, it can mean access to students, it can mean someone actually paying a good portion of your salary. And until you start doing this job, you don't necessarily know what you need...

I'm interested in finding out what people think about this.

Monday, February 22, 2016

This is how I will use preprints. How would you use them?

As usual there is some fierce debate going on on Twitter and this time it's about about preprints (non-peer-reviewed manuscripts made publicly available) and how they will save or completely doom biomedical research. Lately I have been thinking a lot about how I would use preprints, as I am writing a couple of papers. Here are my 2 cents.

Pre-prints are NOT peer-reviewed publications and should not be treated as such, but I consider them full fledged scientific output, i.e. items which could legally reside in an NIH biosketch. If you are at the point in a project where you have a fully formed manuscript with figures and stuff, kudos to you! Getting to that stage in a project is an achievement and a preprint in my book is a 1,000 times better than a manuscript listed "in preparation" in your CV. If I am on a faculty search committee or on a grant review panel and you list papers "in prep", that means nothing to me since I have no idea of when those projects will be done, nor what their scope is. I had papers in prep on my CV that never saw the light of I know better. So as a reviewer or committee member I would be delighted to read your preprints. It would allow me to actually take a look at your work.

This brings me to a point that baffles me, that preprints will doom biomedical research because without peer review, how will we judge? If preprints count for grants and job applications, will we not get flooded with crap? Wait, are we suddenly unable to read a paper? Despite all the people screaming to the top of their lungs that peer review is broken, I have always had a great experience as a peer reviewer and a peer reviewee (apart from Nature, reviewers for Nature are crazy, but this is a story from another post). Reviewers of my papers AND my grants have (almost) always had constructive and interesting comments which have led to a greatly improved product. As a relatively new reviewer, I always go read all the other reviewers' comments. In general I find that we agree, and that sometimes they bring up some really smart points is hadn't thought about or I didn't want to raise (I'm usually glad they did). All this to say that as someone who can write and review a paper, I can read a preprint and decide whether it's good or not....and so can most scientists. As long as we agree that a preprint is a manuscript that must be taken with a grain of salt, I think we'll do just fine.

How do I plan to use preprints in my own lab? Judiciously and with caution. Posting a preprint is still a very scary thing for a new investigator. I know there are other groups working on my genes of interest and I know they have some of the reagents/animals I have. They may not quite have the same expertise/ideas we have, but I've been surprised before by papers coming out of left field. Will the preprint of a particularly interesting finding generate wide interest and get multiple groups to actually publish before we do? Am I putting my career in jeopardy?

Some academics think of this attitude as blasphemy, but I look at my lab as it was a business. My products are papers, my earnings are grants. I peddle my goods at conferences and talks, find supporters and collaborators. I was trained to always share openly. If you don't put your product out there, who's going to buy it? It has served me well in the past: I have found my best collaborators by talking openly at conferences and sharing has saved me from getting scooped a couple of times. So I tend to lean towards preprints as just another product. I guess posting one is like beta testing. When I do I will be terrified and anxious, like when I occasionally share my inner fears and insecurities on my blog. But I'll start with baby steps after thorough discussion with my trainees and how this could help/hurt them. Let's just hope my papers don't stay in beta as long as Gmail!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Best advice I ever received was to never scrub a toilet again

Note. Since I've been accused on not being fair and thinking of other people as less worthy by asking them to do chores for me, which is definitely NOT my intention, I have made a few edits to clarify things. I just hire people to do jobs that they are already doing and I pay them fairly with the money I have available.

When I was a grad student, I attended a luncheon with a very successful female scientist. When asked if she had any particular advice for us young women starting out, she said to learn to maximize our time and to never ever waste it with tasks that don't push your career forward, like cleaning the bathroom. She told us to just hire people to do these types of things because our careers would become more and more busy, family obligations would fill every free moment and scrubbing a toilet was not worth our time. Over and over again this type of advice was repeated by successful scientists at "women in science meeting": "Find the right housekeeper and pay them their weight in gold" "Find the right people to help you manage your life".
In grad school I had friends who paid for a monthly cleaning service, but I felt I should still do all my housework myself. I didn't hire a cleaning person until my postdoc and I could only pay for her to come once every two months, but I was hooked. That was around the time the "outsourcing your life" craziness exploded on magazines. If you missed it, these are some articles from The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post. The idea is that time is money and you want to spend your time on things you want to do, on things that enrich you personally, emotionally or financially, and everything else should be taken care of by someone else. Apart from hiring a personal assistant in India, which I've been dying to do for years, but which would require giving someone access to may banking and financial information, I pretty much tried everything.

I have repeated multiple times that as you rise in the academic ladder, the amount of things you have to do continues to increase and you just become a better juggler or weightlifter, so things begin to take a toll. I am that person whose unread email count always had to be 0 and I used to be as obsessive at getting my mail. Nowadays, if I pull my mail out once a week or twice a month, it's good. My cable box broke maybe 10, maybe 14 weeks ago, I have no idea, but the people I need to talk to leave at 9pm and if I do get home before 9pm, I'm usually too exhausted to pick up the phone and deal with stupid Comcast (I should probably call them right now instead of writing this, but I hate Comcast). Most of the time, I feel my life outside the lab is kept together by a thread, but that thread consists of multiple lovely people who do all the things that do not require my Social Security Number.

1) I don't clean. That is a bit of a lie, as everyone who has a cleaning crew knows, all surfaces must be free and clothes must be put away when they come, as a courtesy so that they only have to do the deep cleaning and don't spend one hour puttin away you stuff. But apart from one hour on the morning before they come when I madly put things away, I don't clean. They clean, they wash my sheets and change my bed, they throw my moldy food out of the fridge. Like my mother, if I leave stuff out, they put it away in random places...but that was my fault for leaving stuff out. When I come home on cleaning day, my place smells awesome, everything is shiny and it takes around 10 days before it reverts to chaos, so they come twice a month (I know, no kids, very un-messy cat, always traveling...and I cannot afford them to come weekly).

2) I don't own a car so I don't do big grocery trips. I pick up my produce at the farmers' market next to work or at Whole Foods on the way home, but if I can't carry it in a couple of bags, I don't carry it. The cat litter, the gallons of water for the fish, the biweekly supply of Coke Zero, all the rest comes with Google Express or Instacart. You pick the store, pick what you want and...boom, you have it. Burnt our lightbulb, aquarium filters, Costco run. All those errands that would have taken half a day are done over 5 minutes at lunch, and the stuff is waiting for you when you get home (FOR $5!!!!). You don't have these services nearby...Amazon Pantry.

3) I don't go to the dry cleaner's. I like doing laundry, so I do my own, but I had friends who dropped everything off and had it done. There is a dry cleaning service that picks up a bag from my building and returns the clothes 2 days later. You can put torn clothes or broken shoes in the bag with a note and they will repair...they even have an option you can check where they will automatically repair any tear they find without asking you. Most cities have services like these and they don't cost much more than the regular dry cleaner.

4) I don't really wait for more than 10 minutes for the bus. Ok, this is princessy, but if the bus/subway is more than 10 minutes away, if I'm cold or tired, Uber comes to pick me up. Yes, yes, they're awful and exploitative and maybe Lyft is better. I constantly try to have serious conversation with them on whether they feel the company is using them, and they all seem pretty happy to me. In any case, a car is never more than 2 minutes away. When I'm in lab past 9pm in the winter, I just call it from my office and it's waiting for me at the door. I don't own a car and the monthly cost is way less than car payments and insurance.

And then, TaskRabbit can take care of anything else. TaskRabbit is a service in multiple cities or online where you give people tasks and they do it. I used it the last time I moved. I gave my tasker my move inventory and a list of companies and she returned a spreadsheet with quotes and contacts after making all the calls in my place. They will organize your closet, pick up your stuff, drive you to the airport, wake you up on time, do market research for you, etc, etc.

The convenience of having all these people do stuff for you is amazing and done judiciously, not terribly expensive. At the end it's determining what your time is worth to you. I like doing laundry, I like washing dishes. Some people stress clean and like going on errands. Some people like driving to work with NPR on. It may just be nice to know of all the options out there and figure out a plan for making things easier on yourself.

PS: I read this interesting article on the pros and cons of outsourcing (here) where they list "loss of community" as one of the cons. Interestingly for me it's the opposite. I'm doing a stressful job, alone in a big city where I know very few people and where I have to take care of everything. The cleaning lady, the petsitter, the concierge, the Uber drivers end up being a big part of my community and are there for me...I am very grateful to them for all their help and do my best to show it whenever I can.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Not all R01s are created equal. When should you let a project go?

The second R01 is done and it was very different from the first one.

The first one was very hard to write, in the sense that the choice of what was going to be in it, what the flow of the experiments was going to be, and how to properly balance the aims was difficult. I took into account opinions from many readers, mostly on the Specific Aims, and worked it and reworked it for almost four months. Some thoughts here. It was discussed, scored poorly. Comments from everyone were very positive about the structure of the grant, but not the writing and the feasibility. My lab is working on all feasibility issues and the proposal will go in again as soon as we are ready.

The second one was not too hard to write, the flow is simple and logical, because the flow of that project has always been simple. However, putting it all together was a nightmare that took months and months of coaxing collaborators to provide preliminary data and information, getting permissions and accesses to patients, and just coordinating multiple moving pieces. It was the first time I had to delegate a part of the writing to other people. The structure was laid out as early as February of last year, but by October we were still not there. Since most of the writing was done over the holiday break and at the beginning of the semester nobody apart from my lab and my collaborators read it, so I had no external feedback. I based my tone and amount of detail in the approach based on the comments I had for R01 #1, but this will go to a different institute and a different study section. To a study section I don't know and with whom nobody I know has anything to do. It's like aiming a dart in the dark. An enormous amount of work had been done to polish and aim the first grant to a specific study section, but then the Center for Scientific Review decided to change things up completely and put it elsewhere. I thought, why bother? Make it as clear as possible for a variety of scientists, put as much detail as possible, as much big picture as possible, and hope this little Frankenstein finds someone to love him....if it doesn't, I'm not sure I can do this again. Which brings me to the question in the title. When should you let a project go?

I started the project for R01 #1 almost 10 years ago. It took us 2 years to just figure out where the darn protein was. My postdoctoral advisor told me to drop it at 6 month intervals, I replied I had a hunch. Halfway through, I decided to drop it because I hated the darn protein with all my heart, my K99 was awarded and I was bound to it for 5 more years. The first paper was published after 8 years! The second paper after 9.5. We have 3 papers in the pipeline for year 10 and my current data is the most beautiful data I have ever seen in my entire life. It was like this nasty poisonous caterpillar finally turned into a stunning ethereal butterfly. AFTER 10 YEARS!

Project for R01 #2 started around the same time and yielded a paper/year very consistently and several grants, but recently it has come to a screeching halt. I cannot find the right people to staff it, I cannot control it, and I am keeping it going out of sheer willpower, as I generate 90% of the data myself and coordinate all the parts. Putting together this grant was utterly exhausting and as my career advances I cannot just will it into existence like a golem! So, part of me wonders whether I should let it go....forget the years of networking, the emotional and financial expense.

Maybe, it's just the let down following R01 submission, but it is a tricky question to answer and I believe that it's a question many new investigators (probably, investigators period) face all the time. Will this pay off or am I banging my head against a rock wall? How do I know I am not driving my lab into a ditch? Ah, fun times! Maybe one day I'll write a book like this one...

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Will I have jumped the glass cliff in 5 years?

Unstable cliffs
This blog post has been brewing in my head for several months. I've been reticent because as a rule I try to be very careful about what I put out there for the world and posterity to see. Some people know who I am in real life. I don't think my trainees and my superiors know of this blog, but someday I'm planning to un-pseud so that all this can be traced back to the real me. At the same time I think of the bravery of Ian Street, PsycGrrrl and Dr24hours in openly discussing their struggles, and how that helps me and other people, so here it is.

Work has been going really well. The lab has found some kind of groove with only minor hiccups. We have what I can genuinely call the best data of my life, the kind of data that if managed correctly can be career-defining. I'm making all the right steps, hitting milestones. Yet, for the past year a certain malaise has been pervasive in my personal life often making me think about quitting. A few weeks ago I was reading this article about women becoming more and more weary about fighting barriers for their careers, until the reach the so called "glass cliff" (here). I thought I'd discuss what is going on in my head.

Last spring around my birthday I was staring down incipient depression. Depression is not a stranger to me, but this felt different, it felt existential. I had to work through the realization that I will probably never have biological children. I had always wanted them. But birthdays are coming and going, a stable relationship is not materializing, so even if I meet someone, I'll probably adopt (or they'll have kids premade). Acknowledging the possible loss of the biological option was devastating. I'm a geneticist, for Christ's sake. I seriously considered going to a clinic and having a baby on my own, but then I realized that I have no support network where I currently live. Most of my friends have kids and I know it is no picnic. The idea of managing a lab towards tenure and a baby completely alone terrifies me, especially considering that hormonal changes can wreak havoc on me on the psychiatric front. There are millions of single mothers and the more I think about this, the more I know they are incredibly strong people.

The thought of not having kids brought up the idea of legacy. What will be my legacy? (Yes, people, full fledged mid-life crisis here) So far my scientific contribution has not felt significant. If it was, would I feel better? Or is there another purely human element that is missing? At a Women in Neuroscience lunch a few years ago, Carla Shatz gave a very heartfelt talk about waiting too long and the sadness from never having been able to have children (some of her thoughts in an interview, here). Everyone was shocked because she is such a well-respected pivotal figure in Neuroscience. The expectation was that if you are that successful you're happy and fulfilled, but the human experience is much more complex.

So you think about family and think about legacy and think about what you want as a human being. I have given everything to this job without even thinking about it for years. But, what is too much to give up for your job? I changed countries. I moved every 6-7 years to a different city, which goes against my preference to being rooted in an extended group of friends. I don't think for a second that the lonely childless state is due exclusively to the job. There are a lot of other factors at play. But the moves and the times when work had to take precedence to get to the next step have definitely contributed, as they contribute for any woman with a demanding career. You lean in, but as you lean in, you may neglect other things. Then one day you looks around you and a "normal life" has passed you by. A fun uplifting read from the NYT this week, here.

So while part of me is very happy as I love my job and my data, part of me is very unhappy and just wants to quit and move back home to get a "normal job" and be with my friends.  When one of my female postdocs, discussing career options, tells me that she looks at me and doesn't think she can do my job and have a family, it breaks my heart for many different reasons. It makes me feel I'm failing as a role model, but it also makes me wonder where my life is going and what I want from it. According to the lore, I am a good candidate to "make it" in academia. I can leave work late at night, I can travel as much as I want without obligations, I can move whenever I want and wherever I want. Yet, I still think about quitting. Why? All things considered social interactions are it for me and I wonder whether they may constitute an issue for other women as well. There is a point when you are the only woman in a group of hires that you start noticing the behavioral differences. In principle the guys want to interact and love it when you organize all the socials and scientific round tables, but interaction doesn't seem a necessity for them as it is for me. The solitude at home and the solitude at work start getting really tiresome, a constant invisible drain on my morale. I run and do yoga. I try to be very gentle and accepting of myself, just to mindfully keep the ghost of depression at bay.

The ambition is still there, the drive is still there, but I feel the slow erosion the article about the glass cliff describes. I used to be against quotas. But now that I am more informed about implicit bias, I think of countries like Germany or Norway which support 30-40% female quotas in boardrooms and government (here). The idea is that increasing diversity in the board changes the work environment and actually promotes innovation and better leadership practices. I'm also wondering if it generates an internal network of peers which makes it easier to be a woman in a position of power and to make your voice heard.  Just yesterday there was piece on how female full professors are greatly lagging in numbers behind men in US Medical Schools (here). I'm starting to really understand why, and while I am still holding on and I gave myself a 2-year moratorium on quitting, I wonder whether I will still be here in 5 years, even if I got my coveted R01.