Monday, May 29, 2017

A scientific Sophie's Choice

One of my mentors once said that women have a harder time letting projects go. Both as it relates to the level of perfection that needs to be achieved to publish and to the general attachment to an idea that keeps resurfacing over the years. Right now, I am struggling with the decision of whether to let a project go.

If you have not seen or read Sophie's Choice, it's worth it. Meryl Streep is amazing in it and she won an Oscar. Sophie is a Polish woman captured by the Nazis with her two children. As she enters Auschwitz she has to decide which one of her children will die. Which one will be more likely to survive the camp? Which one is the weakest needing more protection? Which one is the favorite? I have written many times of how my lab is split between two major projects, of how they are different in many ways, which is messing with my identity as a scientist. In addition, while they both were funded, one project has been struggling from the start and has required a huge amount of my attention and effort. The right people to carry it on have not materialized, so I have kept it going mostly by myself by sheer willpower and elbow grease. As I make the final tenure push, I have to decide whether to let it go. This feels like cutting out a piece of myself. This is the project that got me my job. It's the one that was my pride and joy as a postdoc, the one that made a beautiful job talk, and the one that was supposed to support my independent lab for years to come. It was not supposed to falter. It taught me that no matter how many brilliant ideas you have, your environment and your hires are critical for success. It required infrastructure that did not exist where I am and that had to be built from scratch without the proper support. It required equipment that was not available. Some major senior faculty stakeholders left to pursue other opportunities, collaborators who signed up to help did not deliver on their parts of the work. Funding runs out in a few months. The reviewers of the R01 application based on this work thought the hypothesis was interesting, but they wanted me to prove it. Which I cannot do without more money. So there. All in all, over four years we are talking of an investment of around $800K and I have to decide how much more time and money I really want to devote to it. The seed fell on ground that was not fertile enough for it to grow quickly.

The other child had been the recalcitrant one. Uncooperative and slow to develop, but it brought in money, so I kept it. I added it almost as an afterthought in my job talk, because I had a freaking K99 on it, so it would have looked weird if I ignored it. Opposite to the first one, this project required all my attention during my postdoc without much reward. Now the duckling has morphed into the most beautiful swan and we have three major papers in the pipeline. Because of the multiple personnel losses last summer, it stalled for six months and is now picking up again with new talented postdocs. My mentors tell me to cut my losses and go all in with this second project. Focus on getting the papers out to make this become my sure bet for an R01. Yet, I have come to my faculty position with an identity and a hypothesis I have been pursuing for 10 years, and I am faced with forsaking it. My gut is confused. I do not have the luxury of time to figure things out. In less than one year I have to start assembling my tenure package and I need an R01 to survive. I love both my projects, I have poured so much of myself in them. But the funding is what it is and I have to be savvy. My biggest conundrum is whether savvy means relying on a strong track record or on a really snazzy idea. I can write a new boring R01 on project 1 on things I am proven to know how to do, or I can continue to pursue the very exciting project 2 where study sections are permanently worried about my expertise. I can't decide...

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Is the pre-tenure job search a thing?

I recently posted a pool on twitter about when to apply for a new faculty position when you already have one.

I had often seen friends and colleagues apply when their tenure package went in to boost their leverage with current university and to see what was out there. I thought this is just what people do. My friend, who's a senior faculty member in engineering thought this was a terrible idea and that his department would immediately assume the candidate had been told they would not get tenure.

The poll which is not scientific, but had a good number of respondents, also suggested that a good time to look could be earlier than tenure, Year 3-4. But why would you leave that early when you have barely set up your lab?

I still don't know what is the "right" time and the reasons for doing a job search are many pre- or post-tenure.

The most obvious reason is that you really want to leave. Let's admit it. A lot of junior faculty candidates may not have many options or may not be savvy enough to ask all the right questions during their first search, so they end up in a situation which is not ideal. In addition, circumstances change: department chairs retire or move to a different position, colleagues move, deans and university presidents change and shift priorities, your significant other is in a different city. Or simply your research program brings you in a new direction and you need different equipment or resources.

But there is also the need for leverage. My assumption that the pre-tenure search was a frequent occurrence came from seeing multiple people do it, and not only get tenure, but also nice retention packages, because another school was trying to take them away. I have also seen senior academics play this game over and over again. The more competitive the university is, the more you need an outside offer to grab attention. A friend once complained "I feel the people who get the most are the ones constantly threatening to leave". So, you don't really want to leave, but you need something and you get it through a job search. This is a tricky proposition as senior administrators may not appreciate this game and it must be played very very shrewdly, especially if there is an expectation of loyalty. It may be more effective in larger places and it's not that you can ask "So, is the pre-tenure search a thing here?"

Yet, I personally think that if you are at all worried about tenure, it may not be a bad idea. The thing with tenure is that you don't necessarily know how it's going to go, unless you really trust your department and your university. I had friends who were told everything was great, but then were nixed by the department. Others had full departmental support and were nixed by a new senior administrator who suddenly changed the standards. Some of them really regret not doing a search after they obtained their first or second R01. Applying for jobs as a hot fully funded researcher has a very different vibe than applying after tenure denial. And going up for tenure with a few job offers makes sure you will land on your feet, no matter what.

In general, moving is difficult because of the downtime in your research and having to learn a whole new set of politics and mores. At the same time, it could be great and sanity/career-saving. And a job search doesn't have to mean moving, but simply exploring options. If just it wasn't so time-consuming and emotionally exhausting...

So, the upshot is that I don't know. When I did a second poll to find out when people had moved, I had very few responses, but I know from experience that scientists move around and that many more want to move. What do people think? Let me know in the comments.