Sunday, September 24, 2017

How do you get people complete projects during the tenure push?

My last post about getting back to the bench and figuring out how much time a new investigator should take from teaching and admin work spurred a lot of discussion about the pros and cons of having the PI active in the lab. It made me think about motivating and inspiring people. I have been interested in motivation for a long time. When I was a PhD student a new PI came into our lab at 8:30pm and just point blank asked me and the postdoc laboring at our computers "Why are you still here? My people are all gone. How do I get them to stay?" We kind of looked at each other and shrugged "I don't know..." Our boss had been gone for hours to go home to her family, and whether she was there at all didn't make any difference on our hours. We just needed to get work done. That started me thinking about why people commit to a project. Mind, the point here is not the number of hours you spend on it which can vary depending on family and other obligations, but the desire to get results and complete your work. How do you get lab members that are engaged, detail oriented and passionate about their science? You hire this type of person, you'll say. Sure, but you also have to keep them motivated...

When I started the blog 5 years ago (😱) some of my very first posts were about motivation, and I still need to remind myself of that advice from time to time. In one of my first posts I posted about a great book, Drive, by Daniel Pink who discusses behavioral research suggesting that once certain basic salary requirements are met people are motivated by Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. They need to work independently and develop their own ideas. They need to feel that they have mastered complex theories and techniques. They need to have a good reason for why they are doing what they are doing.

This all sounds great! This is exactly what motivates me. But everyone moving at their own speed or following their own ideas could work for a large well-funded lab but may not be the best way to get a small research lab to finish the papers and projects we need to survive the tenure-track. I have already assigned lab peeps to specific priorities, but some of my mentors want me to pull people off their own projects to help on finishing other people's things. I'm debating whether that would help or hurt our progress. Will I be disrupting lab dynamics and upsetting egos? And what about their own projects? This doesn't really promote autonomy or mastery...

It makes me think of the people who run a "tight ship". One of my past mentors forbade students to leave before 6pm and did random checks on Saturday to make sure everyone was at work. A lot got done, but I hated working that way, and this attitude is so distant from my personality, I would feel horrible imposing similar rules. But what is right? As I drive myself insane about the tenure push, I am torn about protecting my lab at all costs from my internal emotional turmoil... and again I am debating whether this is the best strategy. Will a false sense of security prevent my lab peeps from understanding that it's make or break time? That doom could be impending that we are all in this rowboat together. Everyone was warned very clearly of what joining a new investigator's laboratory entailed, of my timeline, and the pros and cons of coming in as tenure approached. But I feel that they really have no idea...and how could they?

I think I need to better express my sense of urgency, keep stricter deadlines, and shift priorities if necessary...and of course get back in the lab! Maybe the camaraderie of working through this together is that is really needed. In the meantime, this handy productivity guide from the Harvard Business Review may also help!

Photo credit: By PeterJBellis from England (White Water Rafting (on The Nile) - Wikimedia Commons

Monday, September 4, 2017

How much time should a new PI spend at the bench?

Some time ago I saw Huda Zoghbi give a talk describing her career path and mentoring philosophy.
Huda is a giant in neurogenetics and neuroscience in general and she is one of the people who shaped the study of neurodevelopmental disorders. She is also well known to be a great mentor, in particular to women. One piece of advice that Huda gave to young investigators was to be at the bench all day every day, work closely with your lab and fill the lab with grad students. As a young PI you are the best postdoc you can get and you are the one who can continue to make the big discoveries. Grad students will take a while to train, but the time taken will pay off.

In theory, I would love to do that. But my question is "How?" How could I have responsibly hired 3-4 students in a very small program where I had 3 rotation students in 3 years? The start-up also does not cover the time necessary to graduate multiple students. With the fluctuations in funding, I could initially guarantee 2-3 years in salary for people and now I'm down to 1 year, so I have stopped taking rotation students altogether.  I have spoken to multiple friends in the same situation and some of them also have to teach one or two classes per semester giving them even less time for mentoring students.

For this reason, I have ended up running a postdoc and technician-heavy group, but as the tenure crunch is getting closer, I'm wondering if I should jump in to make things move faster. In talking to friends who just went through the process I realized I'm not an exception. I'm still the most advanced and technically skilled postdoc I can get. So my dilemma at this time is whether I need to get better organized with writing grants and papers, and carve out time for experiments. I was independent as a student and postdoc working on my own projects and ideas, so I tend to follow the same model of letting everyone work on their project and paper. Yet, I'm worried this is hurting more than helping and that I should get "all hands on deck" on a couple of papers and reroute resources to get things done.

What is your experience? How much time should a new PI spend at the bench? Does it make sense for me to step in to help with experiments or to start the riskiest projects and only give them off to trainees once the preliminary data is solid? Comments and advice would be greatly appreciated.