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...