Grants strategy for the newly minted PI

I’d like to solicit the collective science blogosphere’s opinion on strategy for first grant proposals for the newly minted faculty member.

I learned, back in the day… (ha ha- it cracks me up that I can say that, my teenager would be SO embarrassed)- that the first grant proposal that you submit should be the one for which you have the strongest preliminary data, and that you have published on. This  meant taking the project that you left your postdoc lab with and capitalizing on that data to build your first grant proposal, and had the benefit that you could submit your first grant proposal very shortly after starting your faculty position. We all know how freaking long it takes these days to go through the submission/re-submission process, so I guess I feel like getting an early start at this is critical. But… this approach could have the drawback that newly minted PI is out of the lab writing- basically immediately upon starting their faculty position. They may leave a bunch of new, green personnel, relatively unsupervised for a large block of time at the very beginning- leaving staff without a good foundation.

I realize that this isn’t the only approach to one’s first grant proposal. An alternate approach might be to identify a hot area in the same field, an off-shoot of what you are already doing,  develop the preliminary data for the grant in say the first year or so of one’s faculty position, and submit the first grant after a year or so. This approach might have the benefit that the new PI could take advantage of their single best set of hands (their own!) in the first year and really get an exciting area, and new personnel, off on a solid foundation. The obvious disadvantages are that betting on a publication from this first year, while training new personnel and setting up the lab, seems risky. In addition, by delaying the first submission by one year (or whatever interval) – the clock on the year of waiting in line for review of the first proposal- pushes everything back. Third year reviews come around much more quickly than newly minted faculty can imagine.

What say you all?

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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.

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.

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.

What a difference a year makes.

I’m dead tired after traveling for more than 15 hours- and I dragged a bunch of work with me thinking … well, not sure what I was thinking. Anyway, I’ll blog instead. This post may ramble and be a little disconnected- hopefully you will indulge me.

Remember my posts this time last year? Maybe it didn’t come out so much on the blog at the time, but I was very down- holding on by my fingernails, contemplating shutting down my lab for lack of $$. Two great science friends dragged me to a meeting (*rightly*, and thanks guys) to keep me out there in the network and raise my spirits. I remember distinctly at that meeting- a friend of mine who was just beginning his/her faculty position coming up to talk with me, just sort of glowing with tremendous enthusiasm and excitement for the new faculty job.  I tried to be enthusiastic along with my friend- but I just didn’t really have it in me- having reached the critical third year of my appointment with no funded grants, fatigued from what seemed at the time a lot of pointless hard work.

Sometime during this last year, we had a speaker at one of the faculty group lunches that I attend. She talked at length about her career- describing her early days as TT faculty. She told a story that echoed mine- terrific enthusiasm for her position, lots of hard work and grants submitted, supportive senior faculty colleagues rooting for her, encouraging her to always have something (a grant or a paper) in the hopper… but reaching the TT faculty career point of no return with no grants in hand. She had to lay off people, she worried that she wasn’t going to make it.  Then,  she found out in a very short interval that she would have multiple grants funded- her career turned around,  she ran with it, and she remains today successful TT faculty. Believe it or not- I went back to my office after that, even in my state of extreme science fatigue, with the energy to submit whatever was next on my list. Her story has been in my head ever since.

Anyway, what a difference a year has made for me, things have completely turned around. The lab went from rags to riches (it is all relative)- in a way and to a magnitude that I never could have imagined. We are out of the woods, at least for the moment- and now we have the opportunity to do the projects that I have been dreaming, writing and theorizing over for the last three years. I’m about to send my first doctoral student out into the world fully Ph.D.ed, and she is a mother of 2.

This last week was a big one. I turned in my tenure package a year early, and a grant I wasn’t expecting anything from turned out to be the top grant in the review section. I served my first days as an editor at a great journal in my field- a position to which I was invited, partly because what I write in this blog was noticed by the Editor in Chief. This position is a huge honor, and not to be dramatic- but seeing my name on the masthead made me want to thank my mom, my dad and the members of the academy. I know that in the next year there will be some adjustments and many challenges, but I’m delighted and excited to enter the next stage of my career.

Why am I telling you all of this? Not because I think I’ve done anything extraordinary, or that I’m anything special. I’m not. But I want to illustrate that you can be at the bottom of the bottom of your morale, and with a little luck, good timing, hard work and persistence (put those in any order you prefer)- things can turn around on a dime. You are just never going to know how or when.

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.

The New Scoring System.

So let’s see, how much can I say about this topic. Summary statements (SS) arrived while I was on vacation. Thankfully I couldn’t open them from abroad.

These SS are from a proposal that was scored under the old scoring system as an A1 submission, and scored again using the new system as an A2 submission. AND IT WENT BACKWARDS- by a lot… to the 40 something percentile. That’s an impact/priority score in the 50s using the new system. How can a proposal that I thought was better- and addressed all the critiques from the previous 2 rounds of review… do WORSE???  Apparently the reviewers didn’t think it was better, and that’s the only thing that counts.

Because everyone keeps asking me what one gets back as a review now that there is a new format, I’m gonna tell ya’ll. Continue reading