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!


  1. I agree with you this job is incredibly hard - and a lot of it has to do with managing people. Life was so much more simple when we were doing the science ourselves, since we had more control over what did or didn't happen. But when we have to rely on others to carry out the science, suddenly it's like our careers depend on the ability/motivation/tenacity/goals of other people who have a completely different level of ability/motivation/tenacity/goals than we do. While in theory we know that this is what happens when becoming a PI, the reality of it sometimes shocking! It sounds like you've had some difficult experiences with toxic hires - would you mind sharing your stories? In hindsight, were there any red flags about these people when you first interviewed them? I've had a few bad hires myself, and I've been ruminating over where I went wrong in the decision to hire them. Maybe it's impossible to know for sure, but I'd like avoid this in the future. Any insights you can share?

    1. Oh, man! I may need to do a post about that. The ability/motivation/tenacity/goals equation is so important and so far I found nobody with that particular combo...

  2. So sorry things have been rough! I'm just starting my own lab (as in, still unpacking from my move to my new institution), and reading your experiences of being a new PI has been incredibly helpful. Just thought that extra bit of affirmation might be nice in the middle of all the stuff that's going wrong.

  3. I feel you! One year in and I've basically lost both of my employees unexpectedly in the span of a month. Starting from scratch and picking up experimental slack from them. Hopefully can find someone valuable to fill their places, but got really depressed over this...

  4. Yep, lost a funded student here....someone trained up in the hardest technique too. It really wiped me out emotionally for a couple of weeks until someone else in the lab got some good data and I felt back on track.