Blogrolling: Pondering blather

Aug 22 2008 Published by under Blogging, Tribe of Science

For some reason the Pondering blather blog has hovered at the edge of my vision but never come into full focus until today. My bad. Odyssey has been blogging since 2005 apparently including several topics of interest from the very start.
Such as science meetings:

The talks are often a side show. It's the connections you make and stuff you talk about one on one that really makes for a good meeting. Of course liquid refreshments help with that aspect.

Science as white-male haven:

Of course the winners are not always guys. Mostly guys. Why is that? Don't women do good science? Actually, women do great science. The most dynamic scientist in my department at Big State U happens to be a woman.

On denying tenure to your junior colleagues:

The other two? One has published but not managed to get any grant applications funded. Not that he hasn't tried. He's worked like a dog. The other has plenty of grant money, but hasn't published. That I don't understand. But there it is. Neither satisfied the criteria. So they won't be put up. They won't go into the tenure process because, in our collective opinion, they wouldn't make it. Ever had to decide a friend's fate like that? It sucks.

Did I mention that this was just the blogging from 2005? I know where I shall be spending some blog-reading time, as should you. Go Read.


Now, what snapped Pondering blather into full focus for me was this recent post on mid-tenure inertia/complacency.

[my good friend Rising Star Theoretician] turned to me and said, in more or less these words, "Your research program is going nowhere and you're in danger of becoming irrelevant." This was neither easy to hear, nor easy for RST to say. But he was right. Deep down I had known this for at least two years

Preach on. Perhaps not each and everyone of us suffers from the complacency thing at some point. But I have to observe that sabbatical (probably less common now) existed for a reason. I actually didn't appreciate this for a long time because I was in an environment of the grant chase and I just couldn't imagine the type of slowdown the traditional professorial sabbatical entailed. Well, now being a little farther down the road, I understand the need for sabbatical. For taking a pause and thinking about new academic directions. In the case of research Odyssey's points in his post really resonate. I'm uncertain on the 5-year plan thing myself, but I'm going to think about what Odyssey had to say on the subject in the post:

Have a written five year plan. It sounds dorky, but it works, and it should cover all aspects of your academic career. Read it and update it often. Never let your plan fall below the five year mark. If you can't see where your research might be five years from now, start developing a new research project with long term potential. Now.

I mean in some sense the continual writing of 5-yr duration NIH R01 proposals counts, right?
So, I think I've applied some version of the RST quote to at least one colleague, in a nicer way of course. And I have had a version (again, nicer and more subtle) levied at me. Still, I do think that I've been aware of this myself and have been applying the boot to my own behind as well. Things may not move quickly if one has to acquire funding but it is critical to keep the plans for novel directions (no, not "NIH R01 novel", really challenging and stimulating for you) going.
How have you all seen this mid-tenure crisis thing play out?

42 responses so far

  • another female post-doc says:

    I don't have experience with mid-tenure crisis is terms of research program as I didn't managed to start on my own yet. but when I was teaching in a college at far far away land for years, I had this feeling. I enjoyed teaching, could motivate students about any course I am teaching, but deep down when I used to think what I will be doing after 5 years, and Answer - teaching the same courses!!! made me feel saturated. I felt strong urge to move out and do something else. I went to post-doc position taking sabbatical from my institute to do full time research and now enjoying the uncertainty of life :). so I guess, you just need to take a pause and move out little bit far and see things from distance and you will know what do to next. Good luck...

  • Odyssey says:

    I mean in some sense the continual writing of 5-yr duration NIH R01 proposals counts, right?
    Yes and no. There are also components like gathering the resources that will be necessary down the track. For example, right now I know that a time-resolved fluorimeter will be very, very useful in my research in a couple of years time (if not now). We don't have one. Worthwhile TR-fluorimeters are too expensive to write into a R01 or NSF grant. So a major equipment grant is in my five year plan. This will require identifying a critical mass of funded individuals on campus and/or nearby campuses who could make good use of such an instrument. It's going to take some time.
    And by "resources" I don't mean just equipment. I suck at networking. But I'm also aware of just how important it is. The rebirth of my research program has come about in large part due to the little networking I have managed well. So my plan includes reminders to myself to work on networking and various goals that could help. e.g. I'm an elected officer in a subgroup of a major scientific society. The focus of that subgroup is the very area I'm trying to break into. By taking the plunge of getting myself elected I had to get to know the players in the field. I had put something along those lines in my plan. Yes, this sounds weird, but in my case it has worked. So far.
    Do I think all PI's, postdocs and grad students need such a plan? No. If you have a clear idea of where you're aiming to be five years from now, you don't need one. If things get really fuzzy on that timescale, maybe you should consider it.
    So, I think I've applied some version of the RST quote to at least one colleague, in a nicer way of course.
    If he had put it more nicely I'm not sure it would have had the same effect. RST's forthright nature is one of the reasons I really like and respect him.* The fact that he's a damn good scientist also helps.
    But I have to observe that sabbatical (probably less common now) existed for a reason.
    Absolutely. And I've been seriously thinking about taking one. I know what I want to get from one and who from. There's never a good time to go on sabbatical (unless you're near the end of your career and are really just taking a University-paid vacation). But that doesn't make it any less important. Or necessary.
    * I'm beginning to like PP for the same reason. Maybe it's a flaw of mine...

  • JSinger says:

    In hindsight, my graduate advisor set a great example for avoiding that sort of rut (which a bunch of her contemporaries fell headlong into). I'd read papers from the lab from 10 or 15 years earlier and wonder "What the hell was that stuff?", like you do when someone throws out a stack of ancient journals and you look to see what Cell was publishing in volume 3.
    I've got to think there's some added risk of a rut for the only-publish-in-incestuous-narrow-field-journals type people than for the impact factor chasers, no?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    JSinger, you betcha!
    Odyssey, yes I should have used sarcastic font there. And your point about tepid versus VeryFrank criticism from our friends is something I've meant to post on for quite awhile now.

  • Beaker says:

    Pondering blather mentions two people who will be denied tenure. One has published a lot but has struggled to obtain funding, despite writing plenty of proposals. The other has great success in getting funding but never publishes. Of the two cases, I find the second one the most despicable. This person received a bunch of resources to do research but did not produce. By contrast, the first person managed to publish a lot using using limited resources. Grant writing is not doing science--it is a means to obtain the resources to do science. Getting a good grant score is like getting a good SAT score; it is a means to help you attain something substantive. If you are not publishing, you are not doing science. I say kick out the one who doesn't publish and give the other one more time to learn grantsmanship. Sadly, that seldom happens. If you are bringing in the overheads, they'll let you stay, publish or not.

  • whimple says:

    "publish a lot"
    A lot of what? You prefer the person who filled the literature with garbage?

  • Beaker says:

    "You prefer the person who filled the literature with garbage?"
    Obviously, no. I assumed that a certain standard had been met. I have a chip on my shoulder since I have a colleague who has attracted probably 10 times more grant funding than I--and yet I have 5 times more citations from papers published over the time this person has been funded. Although citations are not a perfect measure of quality, I did not publish in crap journals. Attracting big grant money and then not publishing is just very expensive mental mastrubation. But not to worry--this person got tenure, and the university loves the overheads. The higher the price, the nicer the nice.

  • Odyssey says:

    Pondering blather mentions two people who will be denied tenure. One has published a lot but has struggled to obtain funding, despite writing plenty of proposals. The other has great success in getting funding but never publishes...
    A couple of points of clarification. First is that neither got tenure. DM was quoting a post of mine from 2005. The second is that I noted the first had published. Not published a lot. In fact he had published what would be considered here a bare minimum for tenure. Not garbage, but also not anything groundbreaking. In retrospect, although he worked like a dog, his work was not focused and much effort was wasted.
    The one who had funding, but published little? I prefer inexplicable to despicable.
    In the end, The decision to deny both tenure was pretty clear cut.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    You prefer the person who filled the literature with garbage?
    Please define.
    Attracting big grant money and then not publishing is just very expensive mental mastrubation.
    Some of the most expensive categories of research (such as clinical studies) lend themselves to slow publication rates and quite often low-impact journals as well. Yet by some measures these are the most important because otherwise a lot of basic research is itself just expensive mental self-congratulation with essentially zero justification.
    Not to mention, attracting a lot of grant money and HHMI-ness and then using that to produce a limited number of papers in very high profile journals for which much of the underlying science and effort is forever inaccessible to the scientific world...well, what would you call that?

  • Beaker says:

    " I noted the first had published. Not published a lot. In fact he had published what would be considered here a bare minimum for tenure. Not garbage, but also not anything groundbreaking."
    Thanks for the clarification. I apologize for the implication that this person was more productive than they in fact were. I am wondering if the person who attracted all of the grants never got around to writing up the manuscripts because they spent all of their time writing grants and then trying to manage (unsuccessfully) the people hired with the money.

  • Beaker says:

    Some of the most expensive categories of research (such as clinical studies) lend themselves to slow publication rates and quite often low-impact journals as well. Yet by some measures these are the most important because otherwise a lot of basic research is itself just expensive mental self-congratulation with essentially zero justification.
    My grant-wealthy non-publishing colleague does mostly basic stuff. It will be interesting to see if this person can remain funded for the long haul without managing to publish much. If so, that is evidence that the grant review process is not optimal (duh!). I'm not gonna diss clinical studies. I think everybody can appreciate that it takes longer for that type of work to get published. But to imply that basic research requires "help" from subsequent clinical studies in order to become justified is arrogant.
    attracting a lot of grant money and HHMI-ness and then using that to produce a limited number of papers in very high profile journals for which much of the underlying science and effort is forever inaccessible to the scientific world...well, what would you call that?
    I see it and hate it, but I don't know what to call it. My colleague calls it the "cool kidz club." It is a consequence of our mechanisms for judging job applicants (high-profile papers rule!) and tenure (sure, s/he only published the one letter to Science, but...high-profile papers rule!).

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I am wondering if the person who attracted all of the grants never got around to writing up the manuscripts because they spent all of their time writing grants and then trying to manage (unsuccessfully) the people hired with the money.
    I don't know about the managing part but I sure know a lot of people in the present environment who are going through various versions of this Catch-22. Time is finite. Junior (and not-so-jr) people have very small labs and cannot necessarily recruit grad students and postdocs quickly. Something has to give. Time spent writing grants takes away from time spent at the bench which takes away from time spent writing up papers. Depending on how severe it gets, you end up with a sort of "pick any two" or even "pick one" scenario. Now, the good thing about concentrating on the grant writing is that if you get one, you may have a longish interval before you need to get back to the heavy-submitting phase.
    Now, as Odyssey says, many cases will be easy calls because it will be marginal from column A and zero/very poor from column B. But many cases will also be very difficult calls in which the tenure candidate manages to do it all, just not as well as s/he might. Marginal in Column A, B and C. How does this compare to Good in Column A and B but poor in C? Or Stellar in Column A, Marginal in Column B and Deficient in Column C? Those are the ones that get really nasty. Say A, B and C are all supposed to be necessary on paper, but not so in reality? Or suppose candidate 1 is Stellar in A and candidate 2 is Stellar in C however one is awarded tenure and one not? or...

  • DrugMonkey says:

    But to imply that basic research requires "help" from subsequent clinical studies in order to become justified is arrogant.
    I disagree that it is arrogant. My point is that if you want to engage in basic research for curiosity's sake alone, that's fine but it sure as hell fits with the "mental self-congratulation" critique. The NIH (H stands for "Health", remember?) is in the business of funding basic science that has some vague eventual connection to issues of public health. With that understanding, the human studies/knowledge/objective reality (however you want to put it) on human health issues are absolutely necessary to justify the basic research funding.

  • Odyssey says:

    I am wondering if the person who attracted all of the grants never got around to writing up the manuscripts because they spent all of their time writing grants and then trying to manage (unsuccessfully) the people hired with the money.
    Actually it was fairly complicated and messy. Among other factors this PI had a postdoc who did nothing, but was a "good friend", so she couldn't bring herself to fire him. Unfortunately his attitude poisoned the entire lab. Many of the faculty tried very hard to get her to rid herself of the toxic postdoc, but she wouldn't.
    On top of that the PI's father went through a year-long battle with cancer, which he lost. This we could make allowances for, but not her refusal to get rid of the toxic postdoc. We did delay the decision not to put her up for as long as possible (almost a year) to try to make up for the difficult year she had with her dying father, but it made no difference in the end.
    As DM has pointed out, it's the close calls that get really difficult. In this case it wasn't close. The decision was painful, but not difficult.

  • whimple says:

    A couple of points of clarification. First is that neither got tenure. DM was quoting a post of mine from 2005. The second is that I noted the first had published. Not published a lot. In fact he had published what would be considered here a bare minimum for tenure. Not garbage, but also not anything groundbreaking. In retrospect, although he worked like a dog, his work was not focused and much effort was wasted.
    The one who had funding, but published little? I prefer inexplicable to despicable.
    In the end, The decision to deny both tenure was pretty clear cut.
    Also clear cut is that your department was shortsighted and mismanaged. You paid about $2M for those two new faculty members, invested five years of effort with attendant grad students and staff, and then threw up your hands and bailed when it didn't all just magically work out.
    Some effective new faculty mentoring could have made a dramatic positive difference for both them, and your department.
    The one who had funding, but published little? I prefer inexplicable to despicable.
    The lack of publication by a junior faculty member with good resources in your department should not be "inexplicable" to you and other senior faculty: you should have demanded an explanation. Senior departmental members should have approached this person in year 3 and 4 to find out why they haven't published, and what could be done about it, if indeed something needed to be done.
    In retrospect, although he worked like a dog, his work was not focused and much effort was wasted.
    This should have been determined years earlier than it was, and corrected appropriately with some oversight from senior departmental members.
    What an incredible waste. How's your department doing now?

  • Time is finite. Junior (and not-so-jr) people have very small labs and cannot necessarily recruit grad students and postdocs quickly. Something has to give. Time spent writing grants takes away from time spent at the bench which takes away from time spent writing up papers.
    This is one of the issues I'm most concerned about, particularly as one who's about to start on the TT. Starting a new lab from scratch with no equipment, no students, postdocs or techs and no grants in review (it's very difficult to submit one before you actually start a faculty position) seems like an insurmountable task at times. I have a generous startup package but it's still going to take a lot of time to get things up and running and the tenure clock will be ticking the entire time. And this is all in addition to teaching as well as service requirements.

  • Beaker says:

    if you want to engage in basic research for curiosity's sake alone, that's fine but it sure as hell fits with the "mental self-congratulation" critique. The NIH (H stands for "Health", remember?) is in the business of funding basic science that has some vague eventual connection to issues of public health. With that understanding, the human studies/knowledge/objective reality (however you want to put it) on human health issues are absolutely necessary to justify the basic research funding.
    This view reflects a bas-ackward view of the role of basic biomedical research. Of course! the most promising leads uncovered by the basic scientists should be pursued all the way to the clinic, if possible. But we cannot know in advance which discoveries at the bench will eventually lead to therapies. Even a cursory examination of the history of biomedical science makes this obvious. Call it "mental self-congratulation" if you like--but the knowledge uncovered with basic research can stand on its own two feet even if its only effect is to change what appears in the next editions of the textbooks. A lot of the information in those textbooks was paid for with NIH money. The cost of obtaining it was modest (compared to clinical studies), and its value, in the long run, is priceless. Sometimes, with the current obsession to produce "translatable deliverables," we belittle the power of pursing knowledge for its own sake.

  • PhysioProf says:

    The NIH (H stands for "Health", remember?) is in the business of funding basic science that has some vague eventual connection to issues of public health. With that understanding, the human studies/knowledge/objective reality (however you want to put it) on human health issues are absolutely necessary to justify the basic research funding.

    Dude, please tell me you're not this fucking naive. What you are leaving out is the undeniable fact that there is absolutely no way in fucking hell to figure out AHEAD OF TIME which basic science research is going to lead to important practical advances and which is not. And reading some stupid fucking HEALTH RELATEDNESS bullshit that Professor Douchey McDoucherson shits out into his grant application sure as fucking hell isn't gonna tell you! Every time I write that motherfucking crap, I puke a little in my mouth.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Starting a new lab from scratch with no equipment, no students, postdocs or techs and no grants in review (it's very difficult to submit one before you actually start a faculty position) seems like an insurmountable task at times.

    One of the morals of Odyssey's story of the shitcanned junior faculty is that the single most important thing you need to do to ensure your success on the tenure-track is to enlist a couple good post-docs right away. And if any of them turn out to be bad, you must get rid of them as quickly as possible.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Beaker and PP you are missing the point. The point is that if you are not engaging in research that has some vague (emphasis on the vague) connection to human health this is FINE but it is justification on curiosity's sake which is completely compatible with the mental self-congratulation knock that was levied by someone else.
    Also, that the NIH being interested in health, expects this vague connection be made somewhat explicit, which I assume you do in your successful applications.
    None of that is suggesting that we need to engage in directed research.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Sorry dude, it is you who are missing the point. The shit that people write in basic science grant applications about "human health relevance" is almost always a load of complete fake-ass bullshit. The real specific relavance of any particular basic science research project to human health issues only becomes apparent--if ever--once the project is complete.
    And you are also completely wrong about my and others' "successful applications" for basic science research projects. Other than in that separate little paragraph they force you to write and that is not part of the Research Plan, I have long ago stopped wasting space in my basic science grant applications with fake-ass happy horseshit cockamamie "human health relevance" fairy tales.
    None of the basic science-oriented study sections that have reviewed my grant applications has ever complained about it. And the basic science-oriented study sections I have served on have never ever spent a single microsecond of discussion on "human health relevance" of the applications we have reviewed.
    Given the actual reality about the relationship between basic science and human health-related outcomes, this is all wholly appropriate. What is inappropriate is trying to force basic scientists to fucking lie about the nature of this relationship in justifying the expenditure of funds on their research.

  • anon says:

    "None of the basic science-oriented study sections that have reviewed my grant applications has ever complained about it."
    I think this is study section oriented. I sat on a study section where this issue was raised specifically for a basic science proposal. It was an ad hoc study section and I was an ad hoc reviewer, and for reasons I cannot fathom, the person in charge of the grant (primary reviewer?) was a clinician. The health relevance was brought up as a major criticism.
    So, I think this is something where you have to know the behind the scenes/networking stuff about the study section/grant committee that's actually making the decisions about your proposal.

  • Odyssey says:

    Whimple, I often concur with many of your comments, but here you're making a bunch of baseless assumptions. The first appears to be that if faculty fail, it's automatically the department's fault. Sorry, that's not a given.
    Also clear cut is that your department was shortsighted and mismanaged. You paid about $2M for those two new faculty members, invested five years of effort with attendant grad students and staff, and then threw up your hands and bailed when it didn't all just magically work out.
    Some effective new faculty mentoring could have made a dramatic positive difference for both them, and your department.

    Junior faculty in our department are told even before they arrive on campus exactly what they need to do to obtain tenure. Number and quality of publications, funding, teaching and other responsibilities are all described explicitly. This is done verbally because the University won't allow us to write it down. We reiterate these requirements early and often. I knew precisely what was required before I arrived and I know these two did as well.
    All junior faculty members in my department are assigned two faculty mentors. This responsibility is taken very seriously and mentors tend to meet with their mentees at the very least quarterly. Usually more often. The chair of the department holds progress meetings with each junior faculty member twice a year. In addition, most of the faculty will voluntarily act as unofficial mentors and offer to read proposals and manuscripts.
    Junior faculty are evaluated by the tenured faculty every year. They are given extensive feedback after each evaluation. The evaluations at years 2 and 4 are mandated by the University. We do additional ones in years 1, 3 and 5. The last is just prior to tenure. We do these because we think the extra feedback is valuable.
    The lack of publication by a junior faculty member with good resources in your department should not be "inexplicable" to you and other senior faculty: you should have demanded an explanation. Senior departmental members should have approached this person in year 3 and 4 to find out why they haven't published, and what could be done about it, if indeed something needed to be done.
    This should have been determined years earlier than it was, and corrected appropriately with some oversight from senior departmental members.
    Explanations were required all along. In written form. Both faculty were advised very strongly and numerous times where they were failing. This started much earlier than year 3. If you don't have, at the least, a publication submitted by your third year you are in deep trouble. The one thing we as a department probably did not do that we could have was to boot them earlier.
    What an incredible waste. How's your department doing now?
    Quite well thank you. We're not Harvard, but we are comfortably in the midst of the NIH's top 20 for our discipline in a public institution. Furthermore we have increased our NIH funding every year in the last ten.
    I will finish by pointing out that in the 11 years I've been in this department we have had ten faculty make tenure and just these two fail. One might argue that that's two too many, but our record is hardly a bad one.
    I apologize for the length of this comment. I should probably have made it a post on my own blog.

  • One of the morals of Odyssey's story of the shitcanned junior faculty is that the single most important thing you need to do to ensure your success on the tenure-track is to enlist a couple good post-docs right away. And if any of them turn out to be bad, you must get rid of them as quickly as possible.
    I agree, but I only have enough money to pay ONE postdoc's salary for 18 months ... or ONE tech ... that's it. While that would be great for me, that's certainly not enough time for a postdoc to get more than one study done (in my field probably only 75% of a study). Is it even advisable to employ a postdoc for such a short time with no great certainty of being able to pay their salary beyond that point?

  • PhysioProf says:

    Is it even advisable to employ a postdoc for such a short time with no great certainty of being able to pay their salary beyond that point?

    Definitely! If you are going to reach escape velocity, you need people in your lab who can work independently on a day-to-day basis.
    You need to operate on the assumption that you will be obtaining additional research funds for your lab in short order once you get started. If you don't, you're fucked no matter what. Trying to be conservative with your start-up by operating on the worst-case scenario assumption that you will not be getting any research funds within 1.5 years is a very bad idea, as you need to leverage off your start-up. Your start-up is like the first stage of a multi-stage rocket.
    And even if the worst case does occur, it is easier to beg your chair for some salary support for a real post-doc already in your lab who will otherwise be literally kicked out onto the street than it is for a hypothetical post-doc you would like to hire.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    PiT, I would lean toward tech myself but I suspect that this is very field dependent and perhaps PI personality dependent. Otherwise, endorse what PP is saying about acting like you are going to succeed and GoingBig from the start. Eye on what you wish to become. Especially if you have a hard money position where if things go bollocks you are at least still alive to write grants... Someone who will be kicked to the curb if the startup runs out might be more conservative I would think...

  • neurolover says:

    I second (third)? the "Trying to be conservative with your start-up by operating on the worst-case scenario assumption . . ." comment by PP. Start up funds can't be saved for a "rainy day" or for your retirement. I think the principle can be a bit counterintuitive for the risk-averse, 'cause we're used to saving for the future. But start up funds are an investment that need to produce a return. Stuffing them in your mattress for a rainy day won't get you that return.
    And, it's easier to get money for people who are already working in your lab than for hypothetical people, so I think the main question is whether a post-doc or a tech is more important for the work that you want to do, and what the potential candidates you have are. That's a biggie - hiring a tech might make more sense if you're only attracting marginal post-doc candidates, but have access to a great tech. But, *hire* people (and get rid of them if they don't work out) and do it quickly.

  • @ PP, DM & neurolover: thanks for the advice - and I do have a hard money position so my own salary is covered regardless. As with DM, I had been tending towards a tech as the assumption there would be more of "this is what I want done" rather than a "here's what I would like you to work on and I would value your input" with a postdoc (if that makes sense).
    My follow up question to you all then is: given that I am starting a lab from scratch, is it better for me to buy the equipment first and get things moving BEFORE hiring anyone or to hire a tech and get them to set up the lab? At the moment, I'm tending more towards the former as I know what I want and I don't want to be paying someone who is unpacking boxes or sitting around waiting for things to arrive.

  • Mike_F says:

    Prof in Training,
    Start looking for good people NOW. You are not running a burger franchise, and will not have the luxury of picking the best applicant from a pool when you advertise a burger-flipping position. You need to get the word out that you are looking for great people to join a dynamic new lab'; and when the right person comes by grab him/her. If equipment is not yet installed that person will spend time helping set up, but that's much better for you than spending 6 months setting up, then starting to look for people and finding a relevant candidate only 6 months later - thereby having burnt up the first year without getting a project moving...

  • PhysioProf says:

    Start looking for good people NOW.

    Agreed. And all else being equal--which it may not be--I am going to come down on the side of bringing in a post-doc ASAP, rather than a tech. You really need to as quickly as possibly create a scientific intellectual milieu in your lab.

  • pinus says:

    I too am starting a lab in 6 months or so...was debating tech vs. post-doc. I am leaning post-doc...exactly for the reasons above...hitting the ground running.

  • BiophysicsMonkey says:

    "And, it's easier to get money for people who are already working in your lab than for hypothetical people"
    Seconded. Hypothetical postdocs can't apply for fellowships.
    Other factors to look at:
    Are there any training grants in your department/division? Do they support postdocs or just grad students? And how are slots allocated? My experience here is varied; in some places they're allocated through a pretty transparent competitive process, in others it's completely corrupt/political.
    Also, what about TA positions? I know a 2nd year PI who runs a pretty large operation almost entirely with grad students supported by TAing. Of course, he is at a massive state school where the demand for TAs is almost unlimited. It's a bit of a risky path to follow, but it can work out if you get good students.

  • whimple says:

    New faculty advice:
    In practical terms, you should also consider whether recruiting a competent and motivated postdoc to your fledgling lab is even possible. It might not be, depending on where you are.
    I would additionally advise that you start out by working on exactly what you were doing as a postdoc, rather than trying to develop something new right away. Your lab will gradually evolve its own direction with time. You can count on being the only competent experimentalist in your lab, possibly for years if your school primarily depends on grad students that have their first year lost to lab rotations and their second year lost to coursework and comprehensive exams. You won't get any departmental bonus points for doing something really new and original: only for extramural cash and papers cranked out (unfortunately).

  • NM says:

    DM (comment #12)
    With regard to your columns A B and C issue. Given what I'm observing in a different country is that the lab groups are going to get bigger, the average age of the PIs is going to get older, and the monetary size of each awarded grant will rise. There is already evidence of this in your country with regard to average age for first RO1 I believe now being in the 40's? Plus the grant size is rising much faster than inflation too, is this correct?
    I'm a 3rd year postdoc working in what (by desriptions of the size of American research groups) is a rather large clinically-orientated research group. To answer your question about how you can be rated excellent in all categories? You make the group bigger and you subspecialise. My job is to analyse data and write papers. Write a lot, write it well, write it quickly and most of all to make sure it all gets published (or submitted to the appropriate funding body). The PI keeps the wolves from the door and deals with the political stuff. There are a number of clinical associate professors who treat patients, recruit and deal with their own research projects and there are scientific postdocs who deal with data collection and running studies and also write grants and papers.

  • PhysioProf says:

    I would additionally advise that you start out by working on exactly what you were doing as a postdoc, rather than trying to develop something new right away.

    Maybe, maybe not.
    If you have sufficient start-up resources, it can make sense to immediately develop something new. If it works out well, you will have done a lot to establish your ability to operate independently. If you just keep doing the same shit you did as a post-doc, some peers and colleagues--rightly or wrongly--might question your independence.
    The potential downside is that it probably will take substantially longer to get the experimental pipeline running in your lab if you do not directly leverage off experimental techniques and reagents you employed as a post-doc.
    I took the former path and, while it did take me longer to get the pipeline flowing, it has worked out much better in the end. And some of the new techniques/reagents we have developed are going to have a major impact in my field/subfield very soon, and it will be absolutely crystal clear that these techniques/reagents originated with me.

  • Beaker says:

    If you have sufficient start-up resources, it can make sense to immediately develop something new. If it works out well, you will have done a lot to establish your ability to operate independently.
    I second this advice. When I got my starting package, most of it went into extending the postdoc project towards the RO1. You cannot expect to turn a brand new "start from scratch" project into an RO1 with sufficient preliminary data, etc., within 3 years.
    At the same time, I wrote a bunch of small grants to private agencies and pitched some of my own new ideas. I got one of those, and used it to support a graduate student working in what is a brand new area for me. After some false starts (normal for graduate students pioneering new projects), the student hit paydirt. Now, my lab has two projects. I am being praised by my colleagues for doing something "truly my own," and I have a second, different area to write grants about (first an R21, later, hopefully, a second RO1). Extra bonus: I'm really excited by the challenge and novelty of making it on my own in a brand spanking new area. I was getting fucking sick and tired of reading yet another "dotting the i's" paper in my postodc area where I've been working since the end of the 20th century. This whole transition did not cost me much moneywise. It did require some serious scholarly work to bring me and the student up to speed on something we knew nothing about. It was a classic "seed money" situation. For me and my student, it paid off in spades.

  • neurolover says:

    One thing that strikes me about this advise is that a lot really depends on the kind of group/lab you want to develop (and what is required at your university). So, one thing to certainly do is to ask very very specific and tough questions about what is expected at your own university. Odyssey talked about giving (oral) advise on the number of papers, the requirements for grants to their junior faculty members (and stated that he believes his department is very clear about the expectations). Other groups will be less clear, either because they really don't have the same clarity of standards. They want someone to become a "recognized investigator" but aren't prepared to say what that entails (and might not know ahead of time) or there's really a competition going on (as perceived at places like Harvard) where you have to not meet a standard, but be perceived to be in the top 10% or 1% or whatever of your cohorts (which may be cross-field, kind of like getting into the glamor mags).
    The steps to getting to the different criterion are not identical. If you're at Harvard, for example, a steady comfortable publishing rate (dotting the i's) isn't going to get you tenure, for sure. You're going to have to take risks, because the non-risky path won't succeed. You'll also be given substantial resources.
    If you're at a strong or good research university, the rules might be different. It could be that solid and consistent work over a number of years will get you there (even if you don't shake the world, or publish in the glamor mags). This might not be good enough for you, but if it is, and it works, it might be a better option from you than taking bigger risks that also entail greater rates of failure. This balancing is relevant, for example, in determining where you submit your articles. It's also relevant in determining which techniques you invest in and which people you hire.
    Finally, it's worth considering what your own personal skills are. PP & Beaker both talk about success in developing new techniques. But, that's only a good path to take if that's one of your skills or strengths.
    This balancing -- which risks to take might be difficult to assess if the environment you trained in is quite different from the one you're working in. If you came from a big/successful "kool" lab, where nothing but CNS publications really count, you need to think about whether this is a track you can emulate. It will be hard, just because your junior, but if your environment is substantially different (i.e. you have fewer resources, including access to stellar grad students & post-docs) you may need to pick a different path. As whimple points out, it's much easier to attract a stellar post doc to a lab at MIT, in the athens that is Boston than to a solid state university in Iowa, or its equivalent.

  • PhysioProf says:

    You cannot expect to turn a brand new "start from scratch" project into an RO1 with sufficient preliminary data, etc., within 3 years.

    This may or may not be true, depending heavily on the particular nature of the project.

    I am being praised by my colleagues for doing something "truly my own," and I have a second, different area to write grants about (first an R21, later, hopefully, a second RO1).

    R21s totally suck ass. It is a very poor investment of time and effort to try to get R21s. Just write a fucking R01. Seriously. R21s suck my dick.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I've known several investigators to obtain multiple R21s and to maintain those during these difficult times as essentially a (partial) replacement for that 2nd or 3rd R01. Just sayin'. (In full disclosure I've only written maybe 4 of them, which is barely even trying. )

  • Beaker says:

    This may or may not be true, depending heavily on the particular nature of the project
    In my case, extremely new or risky methods development was not required to create the new project. The novelty was conceptual: we chose to work in a field in which we had no previous track record. The limitation wasn't the nature of the project as much as it was the resources at hand and my own level of experience. I was a freshly-minted PI with an OK startup at a mid-level university. It would have been foolhardy to spend ALL of my startup resources on a risky new project and ignore the established track record from my postdoc. For me to simultaneously work on 2 different RO1s (and having zero previous experience even writing one, in the current funding environment) would have diluted my efforts too much.
    Just write a fucking R01. Seriously.
    I'll take your advice. Seriously.

  • DSKS says:

    "You cannot expect to turn a brand new "start from scratch" project into an RO1 with sufficient preliminary data, etc., within 3 years.."
    This is something I've been concerned about. Fortunately, my PI was very open when it came to negotiating time for personal projects, and I've generated a good body of preliminary data during my postdoc to more-or-less take a shot at an RO1 app immediately, for good or ill. Now, whether I successfully obtain a solid TT position from which to submit one is another matter...
    But that's another caveat to the PI-postdoc relationship that seems like a challenge to me, especially if the PI is brand new; finding that balance between the PI achieving the goals set out for their own projects (which requires diligent workers) with the needs of the postdoc to pursue their own research and career goals.

  • Beaker says:

    But that's another caveat to the PI-postdoc relationship that seems like a challenge to me, especially if the PI is brand new; finding that balance between the PI achieving the goals set out for their own projects (which requires diligent workers) with the needs of the postdoc to pursue their own research and career goals.
    This was a no-brainer for me. The postdoc hired from the startup money pursued the established project. The questions were clear, and the tools were there--along with the potential to obtain a high-impact publication. Often, postdocs often don't have the time, career-wise, to try venture capitalism as their first main project. Later on, if the postdoc stays around, the PI should allow the postdoc a chance to grow something that they can take away. The student, on the other hand, got a chance to be the pioneer right away. The risks and costs to the labe were less. And if the project crashed, there was still time to complete a safer project. However, the student was a successful pioneer. He now has a track record in an area in which he can work in for years to come, if he chooses.

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