To Gerty Z on Sunday Afternoon Panic Attacks…

I know I have been neglecting this blog, and I assure you this is not a desired or a permanent state. I am not sure when I’ll get back to regular posting- as I have a January travel hell coming up, but I really want to emerge from my self imposed blog hiatus and give a shout out to Gerty Z, on the occasion of her Sunday afternoon panic attack.

I too recall when I was a beginning Assistant Professor, trying on my new lab for the first time, feeling like I could accomplish everything and nothing all at the same time. The science, as the thing I knew best, seemed like the least of my concerns since I had to deal with all kinds of subjects I had little experience in like hiring people, mentoring rotating people, managing budgets, attend a bunch of meetings (that seemed pointless at the time), and- importantly- submitting 1001 grants on 1001 different deadlines each with their own 1001 pieces of supporting paperwork. I don’t think I mentioned the bane of my existence … compliance paperwork for about the most complicated set of experiments one could imagine- 3 different animal models, non-survival surgeries, and biohazardous agents. And, I was lonely in my new position- not having a fellow jr. faculty buddy to compare notes, successes and mistakes with. Tenure seemed so far off, and I kidded myself that I just wanted a honest shot at it under my own power and it didn’t really matter to me whether I got tenure or not. What I’m trying to say (and perhaps should have used less words for) Gerty Z- is I know where you are coming from.

Take heart though- I’ve made it to the other side of tenure now, and if I can make it- so can you. First- the pep talk. You must trust in yourself, your abilities, and your education, recognize that few mistakes are fatal and try to avoid those that are. Do your science and build a network of colleagues and collaborators as though your life depends on it. Worry less about absolute number of papers you need to get tenure, and more about having every piece of preliminary data you need, publishing it all, hitting every grant deadline, and taking those reviewers just as seriously as you can. Don’t compare yourself to others, just DO the science that got you on the tenure track. And… ENJOY IT… after all… you do this because you love the questions and seeing the results, don’t you?

As for your specific questions….I’ll revert to my preferred mode… the list:

2. In a desperate fit of procrastination, I have been reading drdrA’s most excellent advice about the tenure track and Odyssey’s repost about how many papers you need to get tenure. These seem like great nuggets of useful advice. But I just feel more like I have no idea what is going on. Why are tenure requirements so fucking vague????

Wow. Good one. Stop looking at the tree and look at the forest. Less important that you need 7.4 published papers in journals with impact factors of 9 or higher to get tenure (ok, I totally made those #s up), more important to recognize that if you don’t have a GRANT you are highly unlikely to get tenure at a research heavy institution. More important to recognize that without publishing your data you are unlikely to get a grant… reviewers will say you are unproductive. Tenure requirements are vague, I think (and I’m sure physioprof will correct me if I’m wrong) in part because they depend on your departmental standards, your institutions standards, and what the field considers important contributions. These will vary from field to field, candidate to candidate.

3. How do I know if I am talking to my Chair enough? or too much?

You will know that you are talking to her too much when she tells you to go away. IMHO- better to err on the side of too much talking to chairpeople and senior colleagues- science talk, grant talk, paper talk, or career talk not idle chatter. You are bound to make some mistakes in all that chat- but remember, not everything is a test, and if people remember even 10% of what you say to them I would be shocked. What they will remember is that feeling of being in the loop, that they know that you are trying (submitting grants and papers!), and they will feel brilliant when they can solve a problem or an issue for you.

4. I’m still trying to figure out how you actually meet people in this place. How does a nOOb Asst. Prof get “advocates” that are senior faculty in other departments? Am I supposed to just start stopping by and sticking my head into people’s offices? I assume that other people are busy, and I don’t even know what I would say. I don’t want to piss anyone off or make them think I am stupid! How do I meet other Jr. faculty? There are none in my dept. I assume there must be others in different departments, but how would I know?

Wow, that’s a lot of questions. I’ve had new jr. faculty send me emails saying basically, I’m new, I see our projects are closely related, I wondered about bla bla bla (interesting research angle), and would you have time to meet. You can find other junior faculty by asking around, and by looking at departments related to yours and seeing who has recently been added as asst. prof on their web pages. As for getting ‘advocates’ that are more senior faculty in other departments… I’m not sure why at this early stage you should be thinking about this. You’ve got time. Set up your primary relationships in your own department, seek out other scientists with the expertise that you need on projects that are of mutual interest to you, mentoring relationships and senior faculty advocacy of you will flow from this.

5. I have a rotation student starting in a month!?!?! What the fuck am I supposed to do about that? I barely remember my rotations. Postdoc PI had a way of just throwing people into the lab without a project or even pairing them up with anyone-this never seemed to work all that well. But I have no idea what students expect for a rotation. I really don’t want to start off on a bad foot with the students.

This is an easy one. You need to set up a short, contained project utilizing very few specialized techniques, and preferably some that can be repeated. Unless you have a great tech or postdoc, you will need to hold the rotation student’s hand at first. You should think more about what YOUR expectations for the rotation students are- and less about what their expectations might be of the rotation. Talk to a colleague in your department that has high success recruiting grad students, who gets the smart ones, and whose students walk out having done great projects… if you need advice on how to set up a rotation and how to recruit the best students.

I’m going to skip over 6, 7… and cut straight to:

8. How do I “pick mentors”? I think that I am supposed to have an official mentoring committee, but I have no idea how to get folks to be on it. This is more terrifying than picking a grad committee by like a million-fold. At least then I had someone (my PI) that helped me choose people who would be looking out for me. What if I step in a steaming pile of department politics inadvertently?

There are two issues here- the ‘official’ mentoring committees and those people who are your real scientific and career mentors. These can be the same individuals but often they are not. You must have individuals in your department and in your previous life as a postdoc and grad student that you know well, and whose opinion you trust. I have news for you – those people are ALREADY your mentors. Network like a madman at meetings … find people in your field with like interests, or experiences…  As for the official mentoring committee, no need to set that up this instant. If you have a sense that one or two of the faculty members in your department are in your corner, and are willing to give you solid, straight shooting advice EVEN when that advice might be something you don’t want to hear… then at least you have a start on this.

9. I don’t know how to collaborate. I really like talking about science with people, and collaborating sounds like lots of fun. But I have never been involved in collaborations. Almost all of my pubs are 2-person affairs. Neither my grad school or postdoc PIs were very collaborative. Should I be collaborating with people? I assume so – but how does that work?

This is also a tough question. I never participated in any collaborations as a student, and only one as a postdoc. Now I’m hideously and insanely collaborative. Do all of these collaborations work? Nope. Did I expect them all to work? Nope. Have I gained some really awesome colleagues and mentors this way- and have some really excellent projects been spawned because of this? YES, without a doubt. My advice to you is start slowly, with a colleague that you have a good relationship with and trust, and with someone who has a skill set that is unique to yours. My most fantastic collaborations are with individuals interested in significantly similar questions… but who have an expertise that is completely different from mine. Expect that some (or even many) collaborations are going to fail, and fail miserably. Expect that a few will be better than you could possibly imagine.

10. There are no other jr. faculty in my dept. The last person (and the ONLY person in the last 7 years) that went up for tenure was a fucking rock-star. There is no way in hell that I will not look shitty by comparison.

There is a tendency to compare yourself to the last guy/girl. But resist. You have a unique set of projects- and you know that the milestones are doing great science, putting out some well-thought out solid papers, and bringing $$ into your lab. Outside of that resist the temptation to compare yourself to the last guy.


9 thoughts on “To Gerty Z on Sunday Afternoon Panic Attacks…

  1. Most important is grant dollars and productivity (papers). Your rotation student, unless they are absolutely exceptional, is not worth it. If you can get a decent postdoc instead, drop the rotation student charade and get the postdoc. That way you don’t lose (at least) two years to coursework, preliminary exams, rotations in other labs, unproven people being proved wrong etc.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention To Gerty Z on Sunday Afternoon Panic Attacks… « Blue Lab Coats --

  3. If you want to get tenure VERY easy, go to a department that hires trailing spouses, those departments are worthless. My univ. hires trailing spouses … I don’t understand why bringing trailing spouses is a priority in our school….

  4. DRSmart- This comment seems rather off topic. Does your experience with double faculty hires- or faculty couple hires have an N=1? If I’ve got this wrong, I’d be delighted if you would contribute some actual data that trailing spouses have an easier time getting tenure than those without spouses, or than the leading spouse for that matter. Everything else is just an anecdote that I’m not particularly interested in.

    In my experience- very often the trailing spouse ends up in a non-tenure track faculty position, or in a technician position- MUCH more frequently than in a tenure track position. I’ve got way more than an N=1 for that.

  5. Pingback: sunday afternoon panic attack (archived from LabSpaces) | Balanced Instability

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