Thursday, December 28, 2017

2017 in review on The New PI

Many people have been posting on Twitter about their accomplishments in 2017. My biggest one is that I have survived with the mental health almost intact because of an effort I started late last year. Coming to the end of yet another year on the tenure track, I feel like I made no significant progress: I still do not have an R01, I am still single, I am still trying to steady myself in my personal and prefessional life. Yet, I have fought as hard as it was humanly possible for me to keep going while safeguarding my physical and psychological sanity. I have given this year truly everything I had. Things have happened to continue to destabilize me, but I weathered and navigated the changes. Every grant I sent out was scored, every pre-proposal invited. I have worked hard to build a stonger community and support network around me. My mental stamina has paralleled my running one, where I trained and conditioned so that for the first time in a few years I didn't get an overuse injury at the end of the summer. The plan for 2018 is to train harder and run further than I ever have. Hopefully, the lab will follow.

In building the annual 'Year in Review' post where I go through the first post of every month, I realized that the theme of resilience was combined with philosophical musings about why we do this job. It's a good summary of what happened. The first couple of months in 2018 will decide what happens next...

January: Going big for the New Year: sticking to my resolutions. Sitting in the back of an Uber in London between Christmas and New Year's, I was listening to whatever was on the radio. The newscaster announced that a new study had shown that to lose weight after the holidays you have to set unrealistic expectations.

February: In the belly of the beast. NIH Early Career Review Part I: review. Last year I applied to the NIH Early Career Reviewer program, which was developed by the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) to train scientist with no previous NIH experience to review grants.
#3 2017 greatest hits

April: 4 years on the tenure track. The lab is turning 4 today! This year has been a heck of a ride.

May: 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.

June: Is resilience the name of the game in academia? As I was going through one of the hardest days in my tenure-track experience, struggling to get grants and to keep projects staffed, a friend advised me: "Resilience is the name of the game in academia. Just keep going."
#1 2017 greatest hit

August: Hiring is hard, but firing is harder. Letting people go is one of the hardest decisions I had to make as an academic.

September: How much time should a new PI spend at the bench? Some time ago I saw Huda Zoghbi give a talk describing her career path and mentoring philosophy.

October: Are academic scientists cogs in the machine of education corporations? Are we as academic scientists running a small business renting space from a larger corporation (the university)? And if yes, is this attitude damaging how we train our students and postdocs?

December: How do you keep going on the tenure track? The blog just turned 5 in November. I missed the actual birthday because it was a crazy month, but I've been thinking about this milestone.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Is "go big or go home" the way to go in academic publishing?

For the past few years, I have been struggling to reconcile my tendency to build large complete stories for publication and the need to show productivity for grants and promotion. I have agonized about what would be a manuscript that would satisfy both requirements, while I had to contend with deadlines, reviewer requests, delays, and personnel leaving. I am still not sure of what is the right way...or if even a right way exists, so I thought I'd brainstorm this here and see what people think.

I was trained to build substantial mechanistic stories so that a phenomenon would be reported with a mechanism attached to explain it. But these take time. I was also trained, maybe naively, to follow the most interesting question and identify whatever approach was most suited to answer it, which has led me to use an array of approaches and not to be technically specialized. This takes even more time. When you are in a large lab with massive resources in an institution with all kinds of expertizes you can draw from, this is greatly intellectually stimulating and a lot of fun. When you are in a small place where you are the only person doing what you are doing, and sometimes the only person in your entire scientific discipline, suddenly this approach is not working so well.

Image: Adi Holzer, via Wikimedia Commons
I had to learn this the hard way applying for funding when reviewers couldn't quite place me and
questioned my qualifications to perform techniques I've been using for years. Despite having worked on a particular approach for a long time, I wasn't as prolific in publishing about it since I was building a larger story, and reviewers didn't believe I could do it. So I put a portion of the story together and published it, but they still said it wasn't enough. I looked at what I had, at my submission deadlines, and decided to break things apart a bit more. It broke my heart a little as I was cannibalizing another paper in progress to break it into smaller "single approach" pieces. Now, while I write yet another paper, which relies on some of the previously published data, I so wish I had kept everything together! It would have been so beautiful and cohesive, and now I have to do somersaults to make my point. There is another paper which has been in the works for 10 years now (yup, ten) because we have been learning new techniques which are taking years to perfect, and I wonder if it will be worth it.

I watch people who stuck it out and built one of these beautiful and cohesive mechanistic stories and I have to admit I am a little envious. Not necessarily because of the high-impact paper and the admiration of their peers, but because of the pride that comes with having a great piece of work to call your own. In giving a talk I can still place all the smaller pieces into a bigger picture. Yet, I cannot tell if it is as evident for others such as study section members, search committees, and university administrators, to see. In the end, my belief has always been that one has to strike the right balance between publishing a large story and not taking too long to do it and risk appearing unproductive. I still have not figured out how to walk this tightrope...

Saturday, December 9, 2017

How do you keep going on the tenure-track?

The blog just turned 5 in November. I missed the actual birthday because it was a crazy month, but I've been thinking about this milestone. I realized that never in my wildest dreams I would have thought it would serve my readers and myself the way it has. It has followed me through twists and turns and going back through it gives me perspective on everything that happened. I went back to the beginning to read the post I wrote the day before I started my faculty position.

"Tomorrow I start the job I have been working towards for the past 15 years and I have been dreaming of since middle school. I always wanted to be a scientist and when I first joined a lab as an undergrad, I decided I wanted to run my own lab. I have had wonderful times and truly terrible times, when I have teetered on the edge of dropping out of college to man the cashier at a supermarket, dropping out of grad school to go write movies or just simply hide under a rock, leaving my postdoc to go work as a scientific consultant in finance or a policy advisor. For years, every day, I would wake up and think "Will I quit today?", and then I would choose my job as an aspiring academic scientist above anything else. Every day. And then, as I was interviewing for positions, something snapped into place..."

Little did I know that I would be back to the cycle in no time. This Fall as I went through the Nth federal grant proposal, dealing with the Nth admin disaster, and trying to keep my life together after months of antihistamines and steroids to calm my chronic hives, the thought of just quitting keeps coming up in my mind every day. Every day I wonder whether I want to go to work or not, whether I really want this job. I still consider working in policy, but have also developed a renewed interest in pharma.

What if I just resigned? A pragmatic friend asked if I have money ready for a transition to survive for 6-12 months, and I do. Heck, if I sold my place and moved to Bali or Costa Rica for a bit, I could probably rest easy on a beach for a couple of a yoga studio...soak in some rays.

I saved a Tim Ferriss piece on TED talking about visualizing what would happen if you did what you are afraid of, and your fears came true. So, I indulged the fantasy and did the exercise of going through what I would do if I actually decided to quit. There is no scenario where the people in my lab are not taken care of, and I don't end up on my feet...and most likely on a beach, at least temporarily.

So, as usual, it all boils down to focusing on what I really want. What is this job worth to me? Is it the job itself or the workplace? Is it worth chronically affecting my health over this? In talking to my friends in and out of academia, I find these are the questions so many in my cohort are struggling with. Including "Am I making myself miserable by expecting too much?" "Should I just settle for what I've got and deal with the feeling of failure?"

2016 was truly terrible for me and I did a huge amount of personal development work in 2017 to keep going with a certain degree of sanity and level-headedness. And I was reasonably productive. But despite being more empowered and having figured out what I want and what I need, I'm still getting unexplained hives, which tells me that something is very wrong. In January 2016, in what I feel was a watershed post for the blog openly discussing some very personal feelings which resonated with my readership, I set a two-year moratorium on quitting. I didn't know then that the two years that would follow would be has hard as hell. I continue to feel the erosion and the sand slipping beneath my feet. Can I survive this job if it continues to be this hard? What is this worth to me? But also, should I stop pushing as much as I do to meet my huge expectations? Again, what is this worth to me?

Honestly, I have found some answers, but I do not know all of them yet. My plan is to put in one more R01 in February 2018, see what happens with the grants that are in review now and then take stock of what is going on. The only thing I know is that something's gotta give for this to be sustainable...