Thursday, December 26, 2019

The post where I thank everyone and spin off a new blog for a new decade

When I started this blog in 2012, I did it to make sense of my thoughts about starting my first faculty position as an Assistant Professor and to share with a few friends. Never ever I would have thought 1) that I would still be doing this seven years later, 2) that the blog would have more than 500,000 total views, and 3) that I would have become part of a community of science bloggers and Twitter users who supported me scientifically and personally for this long. On a fateful day in 2014 when Melissa @biochembelle tweeted about my posts and introduced me to the scientific community on social media everything changed. I made lots of pocket friends, many of whom became real-life friends, and I was introduced to an extended support network full of information and new ideas, often providing respite from the lonely life of starting a lab on Twitter and via the @NewPI_slack. I met colleagues who were a sounding board for grant ideas and who helped with my career progression and transition (you know who you are). I found Peg AtKisson @iGrrrl who was hired as a grant consultant and was instrumental in helping me get 2 R01s. I watched science Twitter dynamics oscillate between chaotic good and chaotic evil sometimes, and tried my best to tip the scales towards good. I learned a lot about diversity and was inspired to build a more inclusive environment wherever I go. So first of all, thank you!

With the general decline of blogging and the trend toward shorter and more immediate forms of sharing information, I was wondering if this would still be useful, but when I asked 94% of respondents said they would still want a blog. And checking the stats I realized that this site still gets 3-4,000 hits a month despite me not having posted in 10 I will keep going. Since I'm not a new PI any longer and readers asked to focus on mid-career faculty issues, I decided to start a new blog My Mid-career Academic Life. I will try and cross-reference the two blogs at the beginning to get clicks and get indexed and all the necessary internet things, but I didn't want to change the identity of The New PI blog and I prefer to move on.  I've been meaning to unpseud for a while, but today is not the day and I promise it will be soon (-ish).

In following @drugmonkeyblog's tradition to list the posts of the month at the end of each year, I decided to link 12 posts to close this blog: the 6 most read and 6 favorite ones which may not have had as much attention. Here we go.

Greatest hits:
1) Submitting your R00 proposal to transfer your K99 to your new job: a survival guide  - 12,547 hits as of today. I'm so happy this has been helpful for so many of you!

2) Interviewing for a postdoc: questions you should ask - 11,176 hits. This was for the trainees.

3) A compilation of K99 and R00 advice - 10,890 hits. This links to a lot of my other K99/R00 posts and other blogs/articles that could be useful in the process. I may skip some other popular K99 posts because they're all included here.

4) Where do you find grant money for your lab? - 5,939 hits. This is old and has not been updated in a while, but it's still a good starting list.

5) Tales of postdocs past: what did I learn? - 5,638 hits. Cultivating or identifying resilience in trainees is something faculty discusses ad nauseam and this was one of the first times I articulated some thoughts on finding the right lab peeps.

6) Will I have jumped the glass cliff in 5 years? - 5,554 hits.  Looks like the answer to that question is NO, but this was definitely one of my most emotional posts and it struck a chord with many people.

My personal faves:
1) The New PI hits the 6 month slump: how do you keep proactive? - The first 6 months of a faculty position are so hard! Whenever I bump into friends at conferences who have just started a lab, I think of this post and I just want to hug them.

2) Musings about work ethics and an unstructured schedule - I still stand by this one.

3) Is resilience the name of the game in academia? - Yes, it is. Happy to report that yours truly, Doc Becca and my nameless friend in this post are all Associate professors and NIH funded.

4) The beginning of the R01 twin strategy - This sounded crazy and controversial and it kind of worked...not as I intended because they ended up being Irish twins. But yay, twins!

5) In the belly of the beast. NIH Early Career Reviewer - Part 2 of a two-part post on the NIH ECR program. What I learned about NIH review in my first experience is still helping me now that I've been Reviewer 1.

6) Deciding which university is the right fit for you - A more recent and mature post on how to decide which environment you want to be in and how to find it.

So long, and thank you for all the fish! 🐬🐬

Monday, December 16, 2019

Dissection of a mid-career transition: what I considered in my decision

This post has been sitting here since the Spring waiting for me to have time to finish it, and I decided to leave it as it was, pretending to still be in the past.

I missed my 6th lab birthday post back in April because things were insane. Moving a lab while you're running a lab is not for the faint of heart, despite already being battle-proof in university administration. To try and do my best to avoid the almost one year of downtime that all the young uns experience when starting a lab, I'm working on coming in with all my regulatory approvals, which with two animal models and human subjects is not fun. Plus, I need to manage some form of a mouse colony and thankfully, very minimal renovations. Plus, moving current manuscripts forward to keep up seamless productivity. And finally, of course, I have to uproot and transfer my entire life...

I'll write about that process later, but the first question is why do it? And how to choose where to go? It was a very interesting and somewhat validating process, so I thought I'd share an outline of what happened because it could be helpful to others in a similar situation or just entertaining...

During the 3rd-4th year of my tenure-track, it had become clear my university was not the right place for me to thrive. Some major faculty departures, some higher-level administrative decisions, and other factors made me look for greener pastures. I didn't feel at all like a viable candidate (reasonable productivity, but no NIH funding), but I wanted to test the waters.

I monitored job ads and started applying in Europe. In Europe because I was nearing the cut-off of an ERC Consolidator grant and it was basically now or never. Deadlines for big EU grants are tighter than in the US with 7yrs from PhD for early-investigator grants and 12yrs for mid-career, so you better hustle. Even though many national early investigator programs have the usual 10yr from PhD limit, these can be smaller awards. I only applied to places I knew and that would be a good fit...and I got an interview from the first one, which was beyond shocking to me! Eventually, the 10yr young investigator deadline is what did me in for multiple searches because you're not eligible to apply for the smaller safer grants. Betting everything on a massive super-competitive grant from a system I was not familiar with was too risky for me and the institution. Some places, I heard later, screened applications based on PhD award date and didn't even look at more "senior" people. But the fact that the proverbial toe found that the water was not too cold gave me the confidence to continue...

As the US job season opened in the Fall of 2017 I looked at what was available and again only applied to places I liked, where I knew I would be a good fit, and where I knew people. When it's not your first rodeo you have the benefit of connections developed over the years. One place hit because the search was later than others and I knew someone on the search committee. I could let them know when my study section would meet so that the Skype interview was scheduled right after. My grant got funded 😀 and from the initial chat, it sounded like a good fit and I was asked for an on-site interview.

Then the insanity began! I mentioned before that a newly funded R01 is like a disco ball hanging over your head casting sparkles everywhere. When you're a mid-career hire negotiation can take a while, so I did my homework. I reached out to multiple places that were of interest and was contacted by others who knew I was "movable". Some led to additional interviews and others to possible invitations that didn't pan out. When there isn't an official search, start-up funds are harder to come by, but there may be pots of institutional money set aside from previous failed searches or for diversity/opportunity hires. You just don't know. And you always need to impress those who guard those secret stashes of cash.

Overall, I was very lucky because I had the chance to explore multiple options and really dive down on the nitty-gritty of the financials, facilities, and culture of the different places. As a postdoc, I was just grateful I was asked to visit, but now it had to be worth my while to move. I was okay where I was, I had been productive, so a move had to be targeted to supporting the next 10-20 years of my career. Fall 2018 was a whirlwind of visits, Skype calls, and phone discussions to define offer details. Months and months of excitement, confusion, and soul-searching. I went to some places multiple times or was shown facilities via video chat, spoke to everyone I needed to about animal facilities, space, cores, administration, and upper management....and I waited. Waited for people to be available, for newly negotiated amounts to be approved, for offers to be drafted, so that I had all options in front of me. My first offer came 9 months after I initially interviewed and it was renegotiated for another 3 months as other offers were coming in. 

What did I want? Primarily a place with a thriving scientific community supporting biomedical research where both myself and my trainees could be surrounded by enthusiastic colleagues and stimulating talks and symposia, a good mouse facility with dedicated space to run behavioral assays, a fully-staffed institutional zebrafish facility that could support our zebrafish research without having to run the facility myself, additional microscopy capabilities. I was also mindful to avoid toxic research environments because after a few years of working with a therapist just to be able to step into work I was mindful of my own mental health and I really wanted to be close to friends and family so that I could rely on my support network.

I think I found what I wanted, but only time will tell...

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Networking for mid-career academic job transitions

I have spent most of the past year interviewing for academic jobs, exploring new opportunities and negotiating start-up packages. Never as before I realized how valuable my network is.

When you go on the job market as a faculty member, everything is different. You are not scrutinized on whether you will be able to do the job, you are a colleague looking for new opportunities. You speak the same language as the other faculty and do not need to be interviewed to see if they understand the ropes of this business. Conversations are a lot more geared towards convincing you to bring your money elsewhere and you have the benefit of time for figuring out whether the new place has the colleagues and resources for your lab to grow, expand in new directions, and thrive. As a more senior faculty, you are also expected to contribute and your role will be very different from a newbie.

With an intimate understanding of the ins and outs of administration and power structures, and of the things that are important to you in running your lab, there are several questions that you need to be answered requiring input from inside or outside the potential new institution. In some cases, those are not questions that you can ask directly during interviews unless the person interviewing you is a friend or a trusted friend of a friend. For example, while you can ask an Associate Dean or Department Chair how they get things done to understand their leadership style, you cannot ask them how much power they really have to get things done. When they tell you there are training grants and internal grants, you cannot really ask them whether they are assigned in a meritocratic fashion or whether there are fiefdoms controlling them.

Often the people recruiting you will let you know very clearly who is who, who controls space, who controls money, and who controls promotions so that you can behave accordingly when you talk business with them. But members of your network with loyalty to you may also provide more insightful details about their personalities and the academic strings they pull and that pull them. As you go to conferences and study sections, you meet friends and future colleagues in an informal environment and can gather additional information from casual conversations on how things are going... little-known fact: when faculty get together for a drink/dinner most of what we do is complain about funding and other work things.

Because if my network, there were multiple people I could talk to honestly about my needs and my fears and who could give pointed advice. In addition, they could introduce me to their friends within the intended institution who could provide insider information. Surprisingly, without any news of my job search getting back to the relevant stakeholders in my institution (though some colleagues peripheral to me were contacted by their networks to investigate about me). This ability to be stealthy may not always be the case and it is entirely your choice how far you spread the word that you are looking. It depends on how afraid you are of your institution finding out and whether you are tenured or now. However, I highly recommend that you spread it with everyone you trust since there could be options popping up left and right. You use can your network broadly once the interview process gets serious (the second visit) and you need to find information about individuals you have met who could be in the position to make your life easier or harder and about individuals who have left.  Everyone always puts their best face forward during interviews and no university is perfect, so you need to know whether a place is worth the time and aggravation of moving a lab. One great benefit of a mid-career transition is that you can take your time. You should use it wisely.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The life of a double agent on the academic job market

This was written last Spring as interviews started getting serious, but of course I couldn't talk about it....

Academic job transitions take a long time! When I applied for my first faculty position, I started sending out applications in September, interviewed January through April and accepted a job at the end of May for the following April. 19 months, including almost a year after having signed an offer and waiting for admin processing, grant transfers, and lab construction. It was stressful, but I loved most of it. After the initial dreadful wait for someone to invite you for an interview, academic visits were a whirlwind of meetings, talks, and dinners. I'm an extrovert and truly enjoy interviewing. I got to talk to a lot of people about my science and I got to hear about their science. I also got to see different universities and departments, and I got to imagine myself there in a whole new life. While I was waiting to move, I was in the best situation possible: I had the prized academic job and I could still mess around in my postdoc lab with my friends spending someone else's money.

The second time is much different. Mostly because nobody at my institution or in my lab knows. It's the first time that none of my bosses or colleagues are expected to write me recommendation letters or act as references. Things that used to be open, like practices for job talks and chalk talks have been hidden on weekends and behind closed doors. I have been disappearing for interviews without much explanation or with some random excuse. I have a great network of local friends and colleagues outside my institution who have been phenomenal in helping me prep. But as much as I still really enjoy interviewing and I am stoked about the options available to me, the secrecy has been incredibly difficult to bear.

I have wanted to come clean many times, sometimes out of anger or frustration, and other times because I want my trainees to know what is going on. Everyone I talk to recommends I stay quiet until I have an offer I am willing to accept. I have seen friends be open about how much they hate their current situation and tell their chair they want to leave, and that generated a lot of animosities. Moreover, I still don't have tenure and if nothing pans out, I will still have to go up next year and will need the department to support me and the school to think I want to stay forever. But differently from the "real world" outside of academia, my job search, negotiations, and transition can take months or years. My lab has to keep going and publishing and I don't want them to feel uncertain about their employment until I know what is going to happen. I take on teaching responsibilities I may not be able to fulfill, and I am involved in discussions about future planning I have limited interest in, but I have to remain present in my department like nothing will happen. At the same time, I must appear excited about new positions, but not desperate, while being sufficiently aloof to obtain the best start-up package possible.  If I am not given a great shot at success in a new university there is no reason for going out of the frying pan into the fire.

Don't get me wrong. I am complaining, but not really complaining. I am incredibly excited about this transition and I am getting better and better at this double agent life. There is so much relief in seeing a light at the end of a very long tunnel and in seeing that so many efforts may be rewarded. I just hadn't anticipated how emotionally taxing this could be and wanted to share the struggle with so many I know are going through the same thing. This job is amazing and sucks at the same time.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Changing institution as a mid-level faculty: a primer

I truly realized I was a New PI no more when I started looking for jobs 5 years in my tenure track. I wrote last year about whether the pre-tenure job search is a thing and it seems to depend on the university. I don't think it can ever hurt if you are in a position of strength, i.e. you are sure you will get tenure, and it may also help show your worth if you are borderline, but it could be riskier if nobody bites and word gets out.

I wanted to check what was out there because I wanted different resources for my research program and some key people had left my current institution. Overall, I was very excited to have options to explore, so I want to share some tips about what worked for me. While similar to what it takes to get your first job, moving later has a few added advantages and problems.

1) Everything is different the second time around. I hadn't realized how different the job search experience would be as a mid-career faculty. I'm one of those weird people who love interviewing because I'm really outgoing and I truly enjoy talking science all day long and seeing what other people are doing. This time because I had a job and I knew exactly what another faculty job would entail, a lot of the pressure of was gone and most of my focus was on information gathering. I was treated like a colleague, not a newbie that had to be tested on whether they could actually run a lab. I could have open and frank conversations, and ask pointed questions on resources and administrative support. I could truly look at options for collaborations and new projects because I don't have to "establish myself" to get my own grants and I can think about multi-PI grants and expansion of my research program. Instead of standing on a ledge and jumping hoping that someone will catch you, it was more like shopping for a rocket. Will this place get me where I want to go?

2) Use your network for intelligence gathering and sponsorship. After you've run a lab for a few years, you know what it takes, you know what you need to make your life easier, and you know what kind of resources must be available for you to thrive. The easiest transition options may come from colleagues, friends, and collaborators who can sponsor you within the department and give you honest information about the inner workings of the institution. You should come up with a checklist of expertise, facilities, and services you need and make sure they are in place. You should also reach out to people you know well and have them forward your CV around to their chair or search committees if there are positions opening. There are places with pots of money for "opportunity hires" especially targeted to women and minorities that can provide start-up money even if an official search is not underway.

3) Money makes everything easier. A new research grant is like a disco ball hanging over your head. You're bright, shiny, and fun. The best time to look is after you get your first big grant or right after you get the second. You will be bringing 3-4 years of funding which will likely offset a large portion of the start-up you will command. If you have any interest in moving, this is the time to look. If you are the end of a grant, you will be less attractive and the university may want to wait until renewal.

4) Apply even if you don't feel ready. As a counter to #2, you don't have to wait until the perfect time to apply, since you don't know what the university is looking for. You can ask around, see what's available and circulate your CV. You'll have a sense of the different places doing research in your field and probably already have favorites. Even if they don't pick you right away, you will 1) get feedback and 2) put your work out there so that places which would be a good fit know who you are. I started applying before I had my R01 when I saw positions in places I knew would be good for me. I knew multiple people there and I thought I'd put my name in the hat in case someone saw it and could mention me to others who would remember me in the future. I was thrilled when one school invited me for an interview without a grant and was not surprised when they scheduled the interview after my study section met. They bet on me which was very impressive. Would things have moved any further if I hadn't gotten the grant? Probably not, but I would have had a chance to talk to them and start a relationship for future recruitment.

5) Remember you know what you're doing and now you're worth more. I didn't quite appreciate at the beginning that my associate professor start-up was supposed to be bigger than an assistant professor's. I went through my budget spreadsheet from my previous search and added new equipment I needed and the personnel I wanted to do all the cool things I had outlined in my chalk talk. After having to make my projects smaller and more focused for the R01s, developing a big picture chalk talk which would let my vision shine was such a joy! But what did I need to actually get that done? So I made a wish-list and got to a new number, knowing fully well that with the new lab discounts I could negotiate a bit and also stretch that number to complete a couple of pilot projects. The best advice I ever got was "Know what you need and what you want. Negotiate for what you want and don't settle for less than you need." I had a chance to dream big and as I was adding things, I shot for the stars.

6) Make them feel you fill a hole. As I was practicing my chalk talk, a friend who's a senior scientist said "You must make them realize that there is a hole in their department they didn't even know they had. That you can fill it and that they can't let you get away". I laughed as it sounded too much like dating, but he wasn't wrong. This is easier done if the chalk talk is on the second visit and you had a chance to meet people to figure out the needs of the different faculty. However, the idea is to think of multi-PI grants and program project grants that could stem from your interactions with the existing faculty and outline how these could dovetail with your work. If this exercise comes easy and you can find multiple synergies, this is also a good sign that the institution would be a good fit.

7) Evaluate risk vs. benefit of a move. In the end, unless you are at risk of not getting tenure or are fleeing a toxic environment, you will be in a position of power. You have a job and you can continue to do what you've been doing, so a move is only worth it if the benefits outweigh the downtime and having to learn the quirks of a whole new system. The money and/or perks that are offered must make your excited about starting a new adventure and confident that you will succeed. Mid- to late-career negotiations can stretch for a long time. You can request multiple visits for you and your trainees, and you can delve into the administrative details with the deans and facilities. You are a colleague, you know how things work, and you may want to minimize the chances you will have to move again. Be honest and straight with them if you need to take your time.

Maybe 8) Negotiate a retention package with your current uni. It is likely that you are attractive to other places, you are also a valued member of your institution. They will have spent a considerable amount of money in setting up your lab in the first place and have been counting on indirect costs from your grants to keep going. By leaving, you are not only removing a colleague, but you are also disrupting their teaching operation and taking away current and future earnings. Once you have an offer in hand, you are in good shape to go to your current uni and see what they can offer in return. You may be uncertain about moving and may have a wish-list of things that they could give you to make you stay. They may be dismissive and you will be certain it's time to go. But it's still advisable to "play nice", since you will need to negotiate to move your equipment and people, and will need to stay a few months before you can leave.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Change is hard...

As the new year starts the looming possibility of moving to a different university is stirring a lot of feelings and not all of them good. In general, the idea of changing everything (city, home, friends, colleagues) once again is weighing on me. I wake up in the middle of the night full of questions: Do I really want to do it? Do I want to risk everything I have built to start over? What if it doesn't work out? What if I'm making a mistake? Why don't I just adapt and stay put?

A transition out of a postdoc is usually a given unless you're in the very lucky situation to be hired as a staff scientist in a wealthy lab. A transition from a faculty position to another is an opportunity and a risk. I know so much more now than I knew during my first round of job interviews. I know how things work and I know what could go wrong. I also know how fickle the academic environment can be, with leadership and rules changing seemingly with no rhyme or reason in the pursuit of "excellence" and tuition/grant dollars. Why change? It's a question I had to answer over and over again at every meeting in my interviews "You're doing so well. Why do you want to leave?"

The answer cannot be the real one, though I assume the reason is implicit. Thet I feel like a round peg squeezed into a square hole, that I just don't "fit", and that my current uni is not the place for me to thrive. My colleagues are great and they are wonderful people. I'm in a great city where I have built a good group of friends. But 1) I feel my expertise doesn't jive with the people around me and that my trainees and I are terribly isolated from my field so that we can't grow anymore, and 2) I want to move closer to "home" where most of my established personal support network is.

As I weigh the pros and cons everything is possible, the best outcomes and the worst outcomes mix up. I wish we weren't trained in considering all possible outcomes and pitfalls since life is not judged by an NIH reviewer. In the end, I have to go with my gut and trust the feeling that what I'm doing is right for me. I've learned a lot from this first faculty experience and I have grown enormously as a person, as a scientist, and as a leader. I need to trust my judgment and know that I will be able to handle everything life will throw at me...

I have not posted much in 2018, but that doesn't mean that I haven't written down my thoughts as I was going through the job search process, hoping this will be helpful for others in the same situation. There is really no rulebook for mid-career transitions, but I started putting together some advice and several posts on what I went through.

A primer for mid-career faculty transitions
On keeping quiet as you interview for a new job
Networking for mid-career faculty transitions