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.


Figuring Startup $$

I received the following question in my email in box earlier today:

Hi DrDrA,
I recently discovered your blog, and have found it extremely useful. So now I’m contacting you directly for some help.
I had an extremely successful interview at my dream university for my dream TT job. In a couple weeks I go back for a second visit, and I’m preparing for negotiations. It’s a large state school, so I have a ball-park idea of what kind of salary to expect, but nowhere can I find information on what a reasonable start-up package is. I have a list of equipment I need, plan on requesting salary for a tech and a student or two, etc., but I have no idea whether this total dollar amount is reasonable. I can’t find hard, cold $$ amounts anywhere. I’ve asked around at my current department, and to other postdocs that have recently started TT jobs (n=2), but these figures vary widely and aren’t at institutions that are comparable to where I (hope) will be going.
If you have any thoughts, or can point me in the right direction, I’d appreciate it!


About to be TT faculty (ATBTT faculty)

How awesome is that!? I think it is really excellent timing because I’m imagining this scenario going on all over the country- it is prime time for second visits and offers for academic faculty positions in the US right now… so I offer to you my reply to the question, and solicit your opinions and helpful suggestions for this intrepid junior faculty to be:

Dear ATBTT faculty:

Thanks for your question. I’m glad you find the blog useful, and congratulations on your second visit!

There are really two parts to your question, I’ll take them one at a time.

1.  Salary- you should be able to get a good idea of the salary range if this is a state university.  State universities have operating budgets, and these are usually public information. You will have to do some asking around as to how to obtain information from the operating budget- sometimes this can be found online, sometimes not. At my large state institution, one just walks into the library on campus and asks to see a copy of the operating budget- the library reference desk has a copy you can look at, ours is broken down by system component, then colleges within the system component, then by department- and it is very, very detailed. You can see the salaries of everyone- and if you know who the most recent hires were and what their training was- you should be able to hit salary spot on. Do not feel badly about seeking out these numbers- this information is very important for your ability to negotiate for a reasonable salary.  Probably the most important reason to do this (as I think I’ve discussed on this blog before) is that every raise you will ever receive is a percentage of your base salary- negotiating a higher base salary can add up to earnings of hundreds of thousands of dollars more over your lifetime of working.

2.  Startup. This is A LOT trickier, as you have realized- and good numbers are hard to come by.  This is because the amount of startup really depends on what you do, how much – i.e. do you need a FACS machine with all the bells and whistles to the tune of 500K, or are you a field biologist that goes out into the field with your eyes, a shovel and a notebook… you get my point, I think.  But with that said- and because we do similar things (I think)- I started the status quo was to ask for the $$ you would need to set up and run your lab for 3 years.  With the current funding climate, you may want to extend this time a little bit. Figuring this number will be based on figuring out what kind of stuff you need to buy to set up your lab, and how much you will need for salaries. Several years ago when I myself was looking for a job, the opening salvo at a large state university  was 500K- and this was the beginning of the negotiation. I know that this is currently the opening offer from places I am familiar with that might employ someone like you.

For equipment- you’ve probably got a list already, figure supplies for 2-3 employees for 3-4 years. A rule of thumb is $1000/month per employee (sounds like a lot, but look at the price of kits these days)- if you want a guestimate. If you use any particularly expensive reagents (Cy3 costs can kill ya,… or research animals and per diem etc.), you will need to figure that in. For personnel- you should be able to find out what is the starting salary for technical help in the department where you are going for the second visit, through casual conversation during that visit. You probably already know how grad students are supported there, and what the cost in stipend, fringe, and tuition if applicable- and if you don’t know this already- the second visit is the time to ask. I think it is reasonable to ask for the equipment you need, supplies/animals/etc costs for 3-4 years, and then personnel – including a tech or postdoc, and a student- then include this all in the number that you ask for.

I know that’s probably not very helpful in terms of specific numbers for your particular case- but this should at least get you in the ballpark. Remember going in -that this is a negotiation. So, going in you know you probably won’t get everything that you ask for- but the goal is to get what you need to be successful and get tenure!

If you are game, we can ask the BLC readers what they think as well- they always have bundles of useful advice!

Good luck and feel free to contact me with any additional questions you may have,


So there you go, followers of the blog- got opinions on this topic?

What is our “duty” to those not on the TT track?

Drugmonkey reposted an older post about the ‘hierarchical nature of the modern academic bioscience labororatory’, and this repost has generated quite a long comment thread which I have been following loosely. Part of the discussion has revolved around mentorship of trainees- including trainees who choose not to pursue an academic career.

Comrade Physioprof commented  …

I would be committing malpractice if I were to attempt to advise my trainees about how to succeed in industry, SLACs, high school teaching, or anyfuckingthing other than the tenure track.

Yikes. While on some level I get where this comment is coming from, I think it’s a cop out on an important responsibility that we have as mentors- a role, which I might add is not rewarded AT ALL by the traditional methods of reward in academic bioscience ($$, papers). While I’m reluctant to get in a blog fight with  C PP (whom I otherwise adore, just so you know), but things have been a little dull lately so  I’m going to face the fear and do it anyway.

Why is this a cop out?  Well, first- we admit and train vastly larger numbers of Ph.D. students than there will be tenure track positions to fill. Let’s save ourselves now and not feign ignorance on this please. I do think that once we admit someone, we have a responsibility to the student beyond just sayin’ ‘I’ll help you if you choose/or are intellectually capable of the TT track, otherwise leave your lab coat on the chair on your way out after your 6th year…’, just as the student has a responsibility to learn and work to the best of their ability for their mentor and for their own advancement on whatever track they choose. Getting a Ph.D. isn’t like going to the police academy… an example mentioned by some of the commenters… where you spend maybe 2-3 months of your life. We are admitting people to a 5+ year program, we will spend huge $$ on their training in exchange for a big chunk of their effort and life. To me, admitting 10x more students than we know that there are TT positions for with the idea that we are only going to mentor the single one that will choose this track, essentially throwing 99% of them to the wind, is ethically wrong.

Why does this attitude bug me so much? Because it’s not just about telling them about alternative career options, it’s deeper than that. I’ve encountered PIs in my career who felt that they couldn’t mentor trainees who weren’t interested in the tenure track- those trainees became viewed/treated as labor for hire. I guess my feeling is, that if one of my Ph.D. students tells me that they want to be a teacher, that doesn’t give me permission to abdicate my responsibility to teach that person how to do experimental biology. It doesn’t give me permission to just give them a list of experiments that need doing so I can analyze their data. And it doesn’t give the student a pass to stop tryin’ to learn what there is to be learned in a Ph.D. program either.

It gives me an extra opportunity though- to try and supply additional training experiences for that student when its possible- maybe monitoring PBL sessions or teaching a lab for undergraduates or medical student’s once in a while. Hopefully this allows  that student to leave with a leg up on the teaching position that they want when they finish their degree, in addition to having learned to be an experimentalist and having made a contribution to the field.

As for mentoring people interested in other careers where they might use their biology expertise, say law or industry. Let’s face it, how difficult is this really?  I surely can’t recite the required prerequisites for law school to a trainee, they are going to have to figure that out on their own. But I can put them in contact with people that I’ve met throughout my career that DO know about this as a career path that might be able to give them a leg up. And man, don’t tell me that you don’t know any such types- if your Ph.D. class was anything like mine, you are the only one of the class in academia- the other 9 are either in law, teaching, or industry- and only an email away.

Fiinally, to come around to the ‘we’re training more than we can put in TT positions’ again- I have a colleague who only rarely takes Ph.D. students, and primarily hires post-docs. This mentor makes sure that all the postdocs that work in his/her laboratory- get teaching experience during their time in the laboratory. Why? Because this mentor has problems training too many people for too few positions, and then having put them out there with no skills to fall back on if their TT ambitions should not come to pass…

Just a thought.

P.S. Isis also has a post up about DM’s post and C PP’s comment that I didn’t see until after I wrote this post. You can find it here!

Unsolicited Advice: Writing Part IV… A Proper Paragraph

So, let’s see, we’ve covered sentences and passive vs. active voice… I’m doing things a little out of order. I’m going to try to build on the sentence, and take you all to the paragraph in this one.

I somehow feel that this is high school stuff, or maybe even elementary school stuff.  I’ve seen BigA write some quality 4th grade paragraphs that put the writing of undergraduate college students to shame. However, I recognize that she is extraordinary and that public education in this country might not be what it used to be (Sniff,… sob!), that my dad may have been only dad holding the red pen to a kid’s writing in high school, and that I was a prolific letter writer in the snail-mail era.

Good Education+Tough Critic+Lots of Practice = Ability to write killer reasonable paragraph.

The paragraph is a unit used to convey a unified thought, Continue reading

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

Unsolicited Advice: Writing, Part 1

Ever since Physioprof wrote a post about how to write a sentence, I’ve wanted to write some posts about writing. I was mulling this over, and then DrMrA gave me this book by Stephen King entitled ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’. I’ve been enjoying this book (and occasionally laughing out loud) every morning from 7 – 8 am while I’m sweating my guts out in the gym. Despite the fact that the book is about writing fiction, so many of the fine Mr. King’s points can be applied to scientific writing as well. If you write anything more than a couple of words long-you must read this book.

It is going to take a bunch of posts to cover everything I want to say about writing. Continue reading

Is it UNFAIR to have women’s faculty groups?

Yesterday I wrote a rather lengthy post about a women’s faculty group that I have started at my institution. While I strongly believe that this is a very important support and mentoring group to have in place for mentoring, retaining, and promoting women faculty, who as a minority have some unique issues in academia, I have come to realize that having such groups may be more controversial than you might at first imagine.  After all, in my observations and conversations with various faculty- here on the blog and in real life- it seems like organized junior faculty mentoring in general is: A. very passive, and B. pretty pathetic across the board (I’m protected from this in my department through some active efforts, thankfully).  And hey- in general- men in academia might benefit from some mentoring as well- so, why should women faculty be singled out for special treatment??? Continue reading