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...

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