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!