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