Saturday, April 1, 2017

4 years on the tenure-track

The lab is turning 4 today! This year has been a heck of a ride. As I was going through posts from Y1, Y2 and Y3, I realized how far I have come. I think the tenure process puts you on uncertain footing from the very beginning. As things progress and you are given more and more responsibilities, being exhausted and overwhelmed can become a constant. On this respect, my year 4 was particularly bad. I spent 2016 continuously applying for NIH funding without any traction. I have pushed an R01 application all the way to major revisions and resubmission and it went from scored to not discussed. Now I have two more R01s and one R21 in play. Putting something in every four months means I'm spending six months of the year focusing on grants which is terribly draining. I love writing, but the uncertainty of the current funding climate, even before the new budget proposal threatened to cripple the NIH altogether, made writing terrifying. The grant going from scored to ND hit me particularly hard. I thought I had done everything right and they still did not believe me. I was at a loss and sitting down at my laptop to write felt like standing by a precipice with a blindfold.

Multiple key people in my group left in 2016 leaving three major papers stalled on a project that will be critical for my career progression. I had to almost start over, while I was already halfway my tenure track. I had a lot of travel obligations during the Summer-Fall and felt the lab slipping away from my fingers. How do you balance? You have to write grants, you have to give talks, you have to mentor people, you have to do service, and suddenly you have to start doing experiments again. You write the papers, you do revisions, you push and push as hard as you can. It is fair to say that by the end of the year I was not well. The Trump election and this feeling that science had no meaning for society any more contributed to the general malaise. I could not recognize myself: I was angry and bitter and so so tired. I was getting to the brink of burnout and depression, and wondering whether I should go on medication(*). I had to do something. I had to find a way to cope with the job or quit.

I asked for help. I did a personal development workshop recommended by a friend. I found a good therapist through another friend. I found multiple other instruments to cope and feel better through science Twitter. I took the time to go to physical therapy so that I could get out running again. If you follow me, you'll know I'm not one for half measures: when I do something, I do it 150%. One 2,000 year-old quote I encountered in January really resonated with me "It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters (Epictetus)"(see a recent Harvard Business Review article about this). I sat down in a quiet spot and took a long hard look at how I react to things and why. I faced some painful stuff, some long-held beliefs that I am not good enough or smart enough. Beliefs that could sneak up in unexpected ways to sabotage my confidence and slowly make me doubt everything I was doing. Through therapy and other tools, I started taking these apart. One exercise I've been doing is writing down good things that happen every day in my Passion Planner, a weekly planner designed to identify and reach your personal and professional goals. On Saturdays I go through the week and at the end of the month I review the month and make a list of everything I have accomplished. It sounds like a corny little trick, but it has been transformative. What makes a day memorable? What makes me happy? Just appreciating what I get done makes me feel better. Even on a crappy day, there will be something, a contact with a friend, a run, a piece of data, a moment I chose to devote to myself, which can be recognized as good.

Nothing has changed for the better in my life and work since November, yet everything has changed. I am stronger that I've been in a very long time mentally and physically. Is it possible that I won't get a grant in 2017 and lose my job? Maybe. Is the world around me going to s--t? I hope not. Is there still a long hard road ahead of me? You bet. Most of this is not within my control. I can only control how I live and how I react to what happens to me. Year 5 in the lab will be about cutting down all the extra noise and getting some awesome science done, and hopefully, having fun with it.

(*) Just a note on the medication so that my suggestions are not taken as an alternative. I have had major depression in the past triggered by life events. I am one of the lucky people for whom SSRIs work like a charm so I wouldn't think twice about going on meds if necessary. Because I know my symptoms very well, I knew things were not as bad and my doctor agreed. If you feel like you're getting sick and need treatment, seek treatment :)

Photo credit: By Wing-Chi Poon [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. I've been following your blog for a while and I just have to say that you impress me so much! It is sort of comforting to read about other people in science with similar struggles as yourself.

    I left my US postdoc about 10 months ago to go back to Europe where I had been offered a staff scientist position with possibility of transition to assistant prof (if I got my own funding). After almost a year here I am already overwhelmed with all the extra work and cannot really think about how I would fare with the even higher workload that would come if I actually managed to get any of the grants I've submitted. I've taken on a lot of teaching responsibilities (probably way to many) to merit myself, and trying to get new things in at the same time as I'm doing writing, data analysis and running the basic administration of the PI that pays my salary at the moment. I constantly struggle with feelings of inadequacy, that I'm not good enough at what I do, that the methods I feel confident in are old. Not spending time at the bench, spending to much time at the bench. Not travelling enough, travelling too much (my family is not super-understanding). Thinking about if I made the wrong choices and feeling like time is slipping away but at the same time I really don't know what I would have done differently.

    The theme song that keeps running in my head is a line from silver lining with first aid kit ('I just keep on keeping on'). In a way I love what I do, and I don't want to give up on it. Not yet at least.

    My fingers are crossed that you will get a really good year this time, grants or not (although I really hope you will get that funding!).

    1. I hear you. It's tricky. I have a few friends who have done the same thing and I think it's even more stressful to be in your position where you have to behave like a PI without having a real lab and appropriate support. What I can say is do not sabotage yourself by thinking that you are not good enough. The job at hand is incredibly hard in a funding and political climate which is terrifying both in the US and Europe. I'm looking at Europe also, and I'm not sure things are any better. All we can do is do the best science possible and pat ourselves in the back for the enormous amount of work required :) My fingers are crossed for you too!

  2. Luminiferous AetherApril 3, 2017 at 4:13 PM

    Well done and good luck! I hope that you do get that R01 this year.

  3. Keep at it! Fingers crossed for your grants. You are a real inspiration to a lot of us! Another new PI here. I can totally identify with your ups and downs

  4. You are so inspirational! I am starting on the tenure-track this fall and I get a lot out of your posts. I also have a history of depression, so I am trying to be mindful about my health and take care of myself so I can keep doing the work I love. I am glad you're feeling better -- know you have a lot of people rooting for you and fingers crossed for that R01.