Monday, August 18, 2014

Who am I? Defining your identity on the tenure-track.

"Who am I?" is the question I have been pondering in the past few days after attending a conference I have attended religiously for the past 10 years.  Since it's a small subfield conference, I know basically everyone there and people come back every 2 years over and over again. Old friends attending for the first time wondered why they didn't know about it and vouched to become regulars. It's is my version of summer camp. Awesome science camp!

Yet, this time I felt like I don't belong any more. The work I presented just didn't fit. Maybe it didn't fit because this year's slant was skewed towards the conference organizers' interests, but this feeling of suddenly being in the wrong place raised some questions I've been struggling with: my identity. A piece of advice I received when I was interviewing for jobs was to develop a strong identity, an identity that could be summarized in a few words. Having an imaginary moniker like "Embryonic Stem Cell Boy" or "Endosomal Signaling Girl" makes it easier for colleagues to pick you for symposia and seminars. And it will make it easier for people in your field to know what your impact is when they write letters for tenure. As a new investigator on the tenure-track I need to define who I am, strongly assert my independence from my postdoctoral mentor and make myself known. Regional, national, international reputation! What do I want to be known for?

The conundrum comes with having two lines of research in the lab. I had two lines of research during my PhD and during my postdoc. Both my postdoctoral projects came with me. They were funded during my postdoc and they got funded now. I was talking about my work with an NIH Program Officer at the meeting indicating that I want to apply for two R01s and he laughed "Blessed youth!" Then I talked to some of the medium-level investigators and I got conflicting advice: some say "FOCUS! Put everyone on one paper at once!", others said "Be dispersive! Follow the biology wherever it takes you! Have fun!" I think this is maybe the hardest decision I have to make as a new PI. Part of me is scared that remaining split will doom my lab, but part of me wants to ride this wild funding wave to the end. If both projects stay funded and productive, each with its own independent animal model, why not continue and instead devise a new umbrella identity for myself? At the end that would be the same umbrella identity that got my the job in the first place. I get really really bored doing the same thing and having multiple lines of inquiry keeps me interested and motivated...and now I can focus my people without having to focus myself. During my first year I have never written the same grant twice and I am really encouraged by bloggers like DrugMonkey who recommend to diversify your grant portfolio. Among all this, the project that I really want to do is yet another one, which is going to take more than 5 years to come to fruition, and which will never get funded if not by my start-up money.

Mind, it's not that I am doing diametrically different things. A neuron is always a neuron and my interest in development is focused on some specific events, but the mechanisms of interest are different, the animal models vary, so that sometimes I'm jumping between different approaches and ways of thinking. Is the balancing act worth it? Will I come out of this with a more interesting and competitive research program?

I know the detail is scant, but thought and advice would be greatly appreciated.

BTW, hope the YouTube sharing is kosher because there is nothing that helps an identity crisis as much as Hugh Jackman....


  1. One of my mentors told me that focusing on your core expertise (grad/postdoc work) for the first five years leading to tenure is crucial because you can publish fast(er) and have a higher chance of getting that RO1. Then, once you are tenured or close to tenure, you can start diversifying and applying for R21s to branch out into a new area/subarea. As much as I feel that I am in the same boat as you, I also feel that this is sound advice. Decisions decisions!

  2. Reading your post it sounds like you already know what you have decided and that is to pursue both things at once. And I would strongly recommend that path. Mostly because you sounds so stoked about it. Who wants to wait until they get tenure to do all the fun things?? At least, that's the route I am taking, and I am in analogous situation to you.

    1. Thanks, Neuro Polarbear. I have invested a lot of time and money in both and so far they have both been productive. In the end I really think that as long as I get money/publications I should be able to get tenure, but sometimes it feels very dispersive. I guess I'll let the funding agencies decide.

  3. I have the exact same thing. Started with a second interest towards the end of my PhD, managed to hold both balls up in the air on my own as a postdoc. So I figure: why stop now? Who says an identity has to be one dimensional? If you like it and it gets funded, then that is a go ahead. Now if it gets funded and you don't give a rat's ass about the topic, that would be something different.

  4. My program officer said diversity is great! That is all the endorsement that I needed. I will manage my split personality.