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...