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...


  1. Congrats!! I have been following your blog since day 1 and just now I read your Captain's Log and your Day -1 post. Amazing! I love following new investigator blogs across time and seeing their progress, and it's been a pleasure to follow yours. I have been following some blogs since my grad student days through postdoc, and just this month (much like your timeline, I started my first faculty position! It feels great after all those years of following other peoples stories, to finally begin writing one's own story. Just so you know, I ordered a couple of lab instruments after reading your blog product reviews and I plan to re-read your management posts to get some cues on lab governance.

    Our of curiosity - why did it take you so long to hire your first personnel? I feel that by month 3 or 4 the lab should have their first staff on board, but perhaps I'm missing something?

    1. Wow. Congrats to you for starting your own lab. I'm so glad the blog has been helpful.
      As far as hiring goes I actually hired my first staff a year before I started the lab. My technician started with me in my postdoc lab with the stipulation she would move and help me set up. When I moved and my lab was not actually renovated for 3 months, she stayed behind and kept doing experiments. A month after the lab opened, I hired another technician to start the fish tanks and manage my fish room. My mouse operation was up a running in 3-4 months, but the fish side took almost a year. I waited almost a year to hire a postdoc because first of all it took 6 months to find a good one and also because getting fully operational took a while. I wanted a postdoc to come in and be able to devote all their time to their own research. Hope this helps. I think every experience is different because it depends on your research program.

    2. Thanks, for the wishes and for the background on your staff recruitment. So I'm on the right track in that I will have my first staff onboard in June/July. Good luck with your R01! And keep posting those helpful management posts and product reviews, if I may say so selfishly :)