Where did you learn to be a leader?

Let’s face this ugly truth: no one teaches you 90% of the nitty gritty stuff that you need to run a lab. Sure, sure, sure, in grad school and postdoc you learn how to generate a hypothesis, how to design experiments to test the hypothesis unambigiously, how to analyze the data and go on to the next set of experiments, and how to fit all of this into the bigger scientific picture. Maybe you learned how to play together nicely in a larger group … or not… during that time.

But when and where during that time did you learn to lead a group, and lead a group effectively? Where did you learn to manage multiple projects going on simultaneously? Where did you learn to manage people with all different personalities and backgrounds? Where did you learn to decide when to keep the peace and when to fire an employee that is toxic in your group? How did you learn to keep track of money in multiple accounts, budget money, and negotiate for resources?

Let’s start with leadership. I realized some time ago that leading comes naturally to me. I don’t think I learned it anywhere- at least I don’t remember working at it. I remember hanging back during grad school and not wanting to put myself out front too much. I remember returning to vet school knowing that I was different, for starters I was about 6 years older than the rest of my classmates, and embracing that for the first time as a strength. I remember making this transition where I became unafraid of sticking my neck out, perhaps too bold at times. But no one taught it to me- it was more a realization that I came to all on my own.

Over the last year my lab group has grown quite a lot. My first couple of trainees are people who seem to me also to be natural leaders, so somehow I quietly developed the naive assumption that everyone that I hired would have those skills. Naive was the key word there. Turns out I have a trainees with a range of different skills in this area. Some of my trainees came from very traditional grad labs where they had a project and they worked on that project in isolation- seems like just the trainee and the PI were involved in these individuals thesis projects. In these cases I think it is safe to say that such trainees haven’t had the opportunity to lead in the way that you have to lead when you are a running a lab, and if leadership isn’t something that comes naturally- then it is something they have to have the opportunity to develop. Some people will probably say that perhaps leadership, or willingness to stick your neck out,  isn’t something that SHOULD be taught in graduate school while developing those critical scientific skills. I guess I just think that there is room for both, and I’ll go farther and say that I think one is necessary for the other. After all, the gold standard of all of these NIH training programs is to turn out PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATORS.

Why do I think this is so important? Well, I’ve seen junior faculty come in at various places and have tremendous trouble staffing their labs and managing their staff. You can not make it as a PI without a strong funded research program. You can not build a strong funded research program without staffing your lab, and without developing a training record (or at least it is very difficult). If you can’t staff your lab, where is that preliminary data for grants going to come from???? Leading a lab and managing people effectively is something we right now teach strictly as on the job training the moment junior faculty hit the door of their very first lab- and I think that is a huge mistake.

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Salaries and Personnel to Start Your Lab…

I’m supposed to be finishing slides for lecture, but I’d like to comment on this. PiT is putting up a vseries on negotiating start-up monies for your first faculty position- in a very detailed series of posts that can be found here, and here (I think we are on the second installment thus far, I’ve also posted on this from time to time and put the links here and here for those wanting all perspectives in one place). A large part of these posts concerns salary both for the TT faculty hire as well as for people you would hire to work in your lab, and there is lots of good information here.

I’d like to add something though, to what PiT wrote- how do you know what salary you as the TT hire should be asking for? PiT rightly mentioned that you should educate yourself on what the going rate is- but there are a couple of sources that she didn’t mention for this. First, if you are getting an offer from a state institution – the salaries of all of the employees of that institution are public information and can usually be found as part of the operating budget of the institution. You may have to poke around a little to find this, but for my institution it is as easy as walking into the campus library and asking for the operating budget. Once you have this in hand you can look for what other hires at your rank/dept/training etc- are being paid. You’ll be shocked by the wide disparities between TT faculty, even those in the same department and hired in the same year. I know I was. Second, if you are considering an offer in a medical school, the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC, I believe that is what it is called) publishes a book that contains the average salaries for different regions of the country, for different subject areas, and also by what your terminal degree was (Ph.D. or M.D.), this will at least help you get in the ballpark. Now, it is pretty expensive- but perhaps someone you know might have it (even your library?), and might let you have a look. Anyway, I urge you to go over and read PiTs stuff and the comments on her posts, because they are packed with good information and food for thought.

One other thing I want to address in relation to this, is a post I read this morning from Dr. Zen, written in response to PiT’s posts, entitled:  No postdoc? No problem! Well, I’ll just quote directly:

You can survive and conduct research without postdocs, but you have to think about it. It’s very helpful to have ideas for $5 projects in your pocket as well as $50,000 projects. There’s a lot of research that can be done with time and elbow grease instead of big bucks.

Undergraduates can be awesome in the lab. The trick is to recruit them early, in their first year. That way, you have the potential to work with someone for three or four years. Still, you can get a lot of good work with people who are around for a year.

Hmmmm. While I TOTALLY agree that undergraduates can be excellent, I think, perhaps that it is not optimal to start up your new laboratory on undergraduates alone. Why? Because you will have a limited time to secure significant external federal funding. This is a huge job, and one that will keep you writing A LOT of the time. Undergraduates will generally come to you with little or no experience, and most of the time they are not full time employees by virtue of the fact that they are in class most of the day. These kids (awesome as they can be) will need training and a considerable amount of your time. I suggest that as a junior faculty member you are going to have to figure out where the balance of your time should be spent to achieve the level of external funding that you need to run your lab- and spending lots of time training undergraduates at that stage in your career is not a good idea!!

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again- as junior faculty you need a senior tech or postdoc (and we’ve argued here and elsewhere (Drugmonkey- but I can’t find the link at this moment) about that) to be running things and pounding out data (like the preliminary data for your grants)- while you feverishly write grants.

Grants and papers MUST be your first priority as junior faculty.

Increasing the population size…

Last night when I was putting littleA to bed we had the following conversation:

LittleA: Mommy, all of my friends are big sisters.
Me: Oh?
LittleA: Could you have another baby so I could be a big sister?

Yikes. Hey I already said no to the puppy- I love you kid, but a baby sister is out of the question.

But that’s actually isn’t the population I was thinking about for this post. I was actually thinking about the population of my lab, and that population IS increasing. See, my challenge right now that I’m not hotly grant writing in every free moment is to shift gears a bit. The lab population increase comes with a whole new set of challenges that I’m managing.

First, I have had to quickly grow the population of the lab to do the projects we are funded for. Making this happen is a bit tricky because different types of personnel have different challenges for recruitment, and take different levels of training. I chose to recruit postdocs and experienced technicians first. These guys require little training (at least in theory), and can hit the ground running. Speed to data is key for me. Graduate students take longer to recruit and take A LOT more training, and so there is a longer time for them to ramp up to speed. I have several doctoral students in my group already, and both of them are sort of in the mid-stages of their schooling- so they are already up and running. More students may yet come, but just not as the first priority.

I’ve been working hard at this, and the population of the lab has just about doubled in the last two months. This brings some challenges. First, we have the challenge of fitting twice the people in the same amount of space. We will manage with this, but we have actually managed to commandeer a little bit of extra space temporarily- this helps A LOT. More lab space is being sought on our behalf, for which we are deeply grateful. Second, we have the challenge of having enough support staff- by this I mean the very important people that keep the lab running, aka student workers. This hasn’t been too difficult, but having continuity and getting them trained quickly to be totally RELIABLE isn’t as easy as you would think.

Third, we have the challenge of the changing personality of the group. Having a whole bunch of new people, and several established people- it is important to me to make sure I set a good tone for everyone to help/teach everyone else, and that I make expectation that we treat each other professionally and with courtesy very, very clear. So far so good one this one, we’ve had only one slight hiccup- but I think it is really too early to tell how the personalities will mesh with each other. I totally expect to manage this actively.

Fourth, I have the challenge of a hugely increased administrative/accounting/and just plain paperwork burden. This could seriously suck up all of my time if I let it. I have >3 AUPs, and just collecting signatures and keeping the personnel lists current on those things is a time sucking exercise. I’m not covering all of the biosafety and other training that I am responsible for…. For all the newbies. I am managing this by delegating some of these responsibilities to the very important technician who runs things. As time goes on and she becomes more and more familiar with things, she can take on some of the onerous paperwork that I get to do for every compliance issue under the sun. Halleluja.

Finally, and most importantly- managing all the projects we have going. Too early to tell whether I’m doing a good job at this. For now, I give lab meeting like everyone else- but for me this happens every couple of months. In these lab meetings I go up to the board and we list out all the projects we have going, what experiments (both specific and general directions) need to come next, and who is doing what. I think it is important that everyone has an idea what is coming down the pike and when, especially because we have to work together on some of our experiments that require lots of hands. Plus, we just need to keep ourselves on track individually AND as a group on everything going on in the lab. I expect that as time goes on, postdocs in charge of particular projects will start participating more and more in this particular little briefing. In addition to this I am in the lab every day of the week, and at least once per week I talk to everyone in depth about their progress for that particular week, and what they expect to have done the following week- with deadlines wherever possible. I think that sometimes for postdocs and students grant renewal time seems like it is somewhere off in the distant fog of the future. I want to swiftly dispel that impression- because grant renewal is always closer than we think it is, and we need to publish, publish and publish some more… if we expect the federal government to give us some more $$.

Anyway, I’m sure that there are a whole lot more challenges that we will deal with as they come along- and I invite any and all of you that have grown your labs and had to manage this transition to enlighten me on what worked for you, what didn’t work for you….….

NIH Supplements for Pregnancy Leave? Just a thought.

In my last serious post I suggested that institutions or maybe NIH should provide some financial support for PIs that hire women postdocs, students and what have you… when these employees are absent from the job, or perhaps have reduced effort on the job due to childbearing. I have to admit- I was secretly waiting for someone to make a comment like the one that follows, and FrauTech fell right into my trap:

That is very interesting. But if you pay PIs extra (or compensate in some non-monetary way) for every pregnant woman, do you do the same for young fathers? I agree more support on the institutional level is important here, along the lines of written maternity AND paternity leave policies that are fair to the PI and fair to those taking the policy. And if you are compensating for pregnancies, you’d of course want to do the same for adoption. But what other support would make sure it was fair, enough to inspire PIs to take the chance, but not so much that it’s a ridiculous amount of leeway?

Hmmm. Ok, I’m frustrated by two parts of this comment, I have to take them one at a time. First to this one:

That is very interesting. But if you pay PIs extra (or compensate in some non-monetary way) for every pregnant woman, do you do the same for young fathers?

I have *NEVER* in my 20 year academic training and career, heard of any incident or story where a man was told during an interview with a PI that he better not get pregnant or start a family during his graduate career or postdoc, because Continue reading

The Academic Job Season… it happens every year…

For those of you out looking for a tenure track academic job- I’m re-posting many of my previous posts on finding an academic position. This seems like a good time of year for this, as ads for academic jobs should be really rolling out now and for the next several months.

I have collected all of my previous posts on looking for an academic job here.  And you can find additional things up under the Academic Job Applications tab at the top right of this page. (Drugmonkey and Comrade Physioprof at Drugmonkey at both new and old sites also have many posts on this subject for anyone who is interested, you can search both these blogs)

A few words about the academic job search climate. We are not running a search right now, so I don’t have a good feeling for how this will go this year. Last year, though, was terrible for the applicants. There seemed to me to be a huge supply of applicants, and really good ones, for very few jobs. The downturn in the economy really affected hiring at academic institutions and lots of searches were either canceled, or initiated and put on indefinite hold, and I’m betting that this TT job scarcity will continue for a while.

My advice if you plan to go out this year- give it everything you’ve got, apply for every job you can, you are in a MUCH stronger position if you have $$ of your own to bring with you, … and make a contingency plan if you can… (if you can sit another year where you are, make a backup plan right now!!)…

It seems like such a big bummer to write that…but it is as it is.

Job Search Question(s)…(UPDATED)

I’ve had a couple of questions about the academic job search in the last couple of days. You all know that demistifying this process is one of my favorite things to do….. and since I’m re-submission writing with renewed energy- y’all get to help me answer this one for DSKS:

Job application question.

If you are a Newbie and, although not in the fundable zone, you reckon you got an okay score and addressable criticisms for your first shot at an R01, can you (should you?) express this in an initial job application? (in this instance, the R01 goals are very much an integral part of the research statement?)

If so, in the cover letter or in the CV or both?

Or is this of absolutely no value whatsoever to a search committee, or even straightforwardly deleterious because it’s tantamount to drawing attention to failure?

It’s not for me. It’s for an, erm, acquaintance of mine… Bob Bobson’s his name. Haw haw. Silly bugger’s trying to get a job in 2009, and he’s to old to join the Navy.

I say ol’ Bob should definitely include the fact that he got a scored R01 application- and on the first submission – on his CV (Should appear under pending grant applications- or some such).  Search committees definitely, definitely care about that kind of stuff, and they know how freaking difficult it is out there right now. If this were me, I’d probably include the score itself and the percentile ranking, and my plan for resubmission dates -on the CV as well. I’m not sure I would write a bunch of bla bla bla about what appeared in the summary statement either in the letter or on the CV- because it would seem obvious to me as a search committee member that if a candidate had a scored R01 they would be pretty foolish NOT to try to resubmit it. As a search committee member if I saw the scored R01 bit on a candidate’s CV- and we chose to interview that candidate- I would likely have a conversation with the candidate about what was in the summary statement- and how they think the criticisms could/should be answered. I imagine that this kind of conversation might come up in a chalk-talk as well.

As for whether or not this information should appear in the cover letter- I’m still undecided on that one.  If I mentioned this in the cover letter my gut feeling would be to say – I submitted an R01 and it got scored on it’s A0 submission…. we think the criticisms are easily addressable and will do this and resubmit on XYZ date. I just don’t think the cover letter is the place to do a lot of explaining about how the reviewer’s issues could be rectified- and so bringing up a score here might lead the applicant into feeling like they must to explain. I could EASILY be wrong about this though.

What say you, readers of teh blog… to Q #1?

On to Q#2…from Enrique:

is it a no-no for a postdoc looking for a TT position to include significant contributions towards said postdoc advisor’s grants on a CV?

Never having encountered this situation myself, I’m not sure what advice to give on this one. My sense is that it would be difficult to fit this in on a CV… but I really need your combined opinions!

Dear DrDrA… (Postdoc vs. Technician?) (UPDATED)

I received the following letter:

Dear DrDrA-

I was going through your blog yesterday trying to find any advice about whom to hire as a first lab personnel when you start a new lab. Is it ideally a technician, experienced, or fresh? Or a postdoc? I have interviewed a postdoc candidate who is eager to join and a too experienced lab assistant whose boss has lost all the grants.  Somebody advised me never to hire a postdoc until I get somehow established, because he/she will just grab my projects and be gone with them. If you could give me suggestions, I would appreciate it very much.

Sincerely, Fresh Jr. Faculty Member (!)

I wrote a little reply, and here’s what I said.  I’m blogging it though, so y’all can add your 2 cents worth- and remind we where we have had this discussion before.. Continue reading