Diversifying your laboratory

Cackle of Rad made an interesting comment in the discussion following his/her recent post on the woes of trying to get funded as a junior faculty member.

I think this means it is time to diversify a little, and that is what I am looking toward. Gotta follow the money at some level.

It can be difficult as a junior faculty member. You look in the mirror and say “I’m a ‘sub-sub-sub-field-ologist’ and I do X and I am interested in Y”. This can be very difficult to escape.

To be honest, I’m still working on it. I definitely had my blinders on as a grad student and well into post-doctoral training. Blinders of the usual entitled sort that caused me to think (not very explicitly, "assume" might be more accurate) that if I was interested in the topic and there was an existing literature, well, surely I must be able to forge my career with little change. I just would have to be good at what I was doing and all would be well. This was wrong.

[ As a bit of a sidebar, I have to look back on one of the subareas of my fields of interest that was pretty hott stuff when I was a graduate student. A couple or six labs bashing away at a topic and each other, lots of excitement, etc. Constant stream of publications for the labs and, more importantly, the trainees. In my naivete I thought the trainees in those labs were going to have it made, careerwise. I thought they were set up for nearly inevitable success. Didn't work out that way. A number of them have reached professorial ranks but I can't think of a single one that has reached the prominence of the labs in which they trained. Not even close. The fervor of that subarea has diminished tremendously. I don't know that it was inevitable, there are related areas of modern interest that they could all easily have moved into. They just didn't seem to do so. But I digress.... ]

Through the nervous days of late postdoc'ing wondering if I would ever land a RealJobTM and even when I became an independent investigator, I was still very much oriented to my own academic interests. I even had the relatively explicit thought that "Well, if I can't make it working on subject Y using my existing skill set and models, perhaps I am not interested in being a scientist and I'd better do something else. Waaah."*

At some point you have to say to your reflected image in the mirror “Do you really want a career or not?”. I did ask myself this question. On more than one occasion. Gradually, over time I came to the realization that yes, I did indeed want a career as an independent investigator in biomedical science. I like my job as a career fairly well. Despite the headaches and tradeoffs and fantasies about how it would have gone down in some other career path. It is a pretty good gig. But it is a career, make no mistake, and you have to reach an acceptable level of performance on the career-related aspects of the job.

And that means, particularly in tough times, following the money as Cackle of Rad said.

One of the good things for younger investigators is that they ofttimes have skill sets that are not broadly applied in a different topic domain. So yes, you may work on System A in Disease Penumbra B but you have skills that would revolutionize work with System C in Disease Penumbra D. Might be time to look for funding from a different disease-focused funding organization or institution.

Or maybe it is just taking the leap to another aspect of the -ology you already inhabit. It may shock you but within the general substance abuse domains there are certainly people who focus narrowly on one abused substance of interest such as cocaine or nicotine or alcohol. And what do you know, they have funding from NIDA or the NCI or NIAAA, respectively. Now yes, we are facing a consolidation of these portfolios under one merged NIH Institute in the future, but this has been the situation for the past 30 years at least. Some folks have managed to stick like a tick to their single drug of interest but when times are tough, this is one thing to abandon.

The key here is that you should be thinking about how to expand your interests and lab directions in a way that make you interesting to different funding agencies. Either a different entity altogether or at minimum a different IC within the NIH.

It may take good mentoring from someone in your field, but slightly more senior, to work through these issues. Obviously an young faculty member will be worried about the effort expended versus the odds of a hit. Elbowing into another set of Bunny Hoppers can be hard to do, maybe even harder than working your way into good graces with the grey beards and blue hairs of your own sub-sub-sub-discipline. HOWEVER, there is also the chance that the Bunny Hoppers will see you as the kewl new shiny penny and bend over to pick you up…

You will also, eventually, be judged on things related to "makes a seminal contribution to the field" and "internationally recognized expert in X". If you are viewed as a Jill of all trades it may be assumed that you are a mistress of none (that doesn't work, does it. Master of none. dammit). At tenure time and at Full Professor time. So you want to be a little bit careful. But let's face it. In this day and age these considerations fade into the background behind the need to get one grant, any grant, that provides major research support to your laboratory.

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*It turns out that you can be interested in all kinds of stuff if you just give it a chance. Really. Trust me on that.

Related Reading: One of Odyssey's most brilliant posts was on mid-career changes in research focus. I should re-read that at least once every six months.

31 responses so far

  • Ace says:

    Thanks for this. I definitely relate to the elbowing process... So how about those of us junior peeps who have the opposite problem? Surely there is a thing such as too diverse/wide research focus too. Shall we keep elbowing in and try to make it in our style of working, even though it's exhausting? Or is it imperative to try to focus on something for a few years? In theory, diverse is nice - you're always stimulated, students are attracted to the lab, people are impressed... Even if you're lucky enough to be in a dept/institution that appreciates the different lines of work, there are challenges. I'm finding wide focus is not very NIH-friendly. I find it hard to find grants that are not some kind of innovation/seed funding kind of mechanism. Care to comment (here or new post)?

  • Dr Becca says:

    Great post, DM! This is actually something I've been thinking about a lot, lately. In putting together job applications, I feel like the goal has been to package and define myself as specifically as possible. I study X and Y interactions in brain region Z using techniques P and Q, I've cared a niche for myself, I am different from everyone else. Etc.

    But I know that when (fingers crossed) I do start a lab, I'm going to have to branch out if I want to increase my chances of getting funded. It's certainly going to be challenging to shift mentalities, when I've spent all this time working on a clear definition of Who I Am.

    Still, though, excited about the idea of being a kewl shiny penny!

  • brooksphd says:

    Great post. But, what's a bunny-hopper? Ilost something in the anlogy there...

    Sometimes the language barrier in the bloody country still confuses me...

  • It turns out that you can be interested in all kinds of stuff if you just give it a chance. Really. Trust me on that.

    I am very leery of people who claim that they are only interested in one scientific topic and only want to deploy one approach to that topic (like Young Female Scientist). To me this is a sign of intellectual timidity, lack of curiosity, and dullness. The people who end up making substantial contributions to scientific progress are almost always the ones who can be fascinated by *any* scientific topic.

    When I bring trainees into my lab, I look for the ones with that excitement over whatever was the last cool paper they read. Then I guide them and help them focus. It is much easier to build a focus on top of hyperexcitability than it is to get someone who is very narrow to take a broader view.

  • drugmonkey says:

    what’s a bunny-hopper? Ilost something in the anlogy there…

    It was a phrase coined by whimple on a comment on the old blog.

    I tend to use it to refer to self-referential small sub-sub-sub-disciplines of science.

    http://drugmonkey.wordpress.com/2007/12/04/bunny-hopping/
    http://drugmonkey.wordpress.com/2007/12/07/ifcn-clustering-a-crisp-analysis/
    http://scienceblogs.com/drugmonkey/2008/10/on_mad_solutions_rfas_and_bunn.php

  • becca says:

    "*It turns out that you can be interested in all kinds of stuff if you just give it a chance. Really. Trust me on that. "
    SO TRUE! So very true. Except for electrophysiology. You can only be interested in doing that if you aren't able to afford the mistress who knows how to use the flechettes right.

    "It is much easier to build a focus on top of hyperexcitability than it is to get someone who is very narrow to take a broader view."
    Much easier for you, or much easier in general? I think you are inclined to *like* people who are quick and have broad interests. Some people *like* people who are steady/methodical and thorough.
    Mind you, it'd probably be entirely to my benefit if others share your view...

  • drugmonkey says:

    The people who end up making substantial contributions to scientific progress are almost always the ones who can be fascinated by *any* scientific topic.

    Yes and No and It Depends On What You Mean By Progress.

    I generally agree with you, however often times the ones who "can" be fascinated by any topic simply don't know that about themselves *yet*. There are aspects to our career path (see my comment about Tenure and other promotion criteria; Dr. Becca's comment about preparing yourself for a job hunt) that really encourage narrow focus. It seems to me at this point in my career that one thing a mentor should be doing is helping the trainees see how to guide the ebb and flow of "focus" at different stages of the career.

    There is also the special category of scientist that is *really* and profoundly motivated by a Disease or Condition and wants absolutely nothing other than to advance understanding on that particular topic. I get that. It might make the career hard but I get it.

    Ace, this

    I’m finding wide focus is not very NIH-friendly. I find it hard to find grants that are not some kind of innovation/seed funding kind of mechanism.

    almost sounds like a slightly different issue. What I am talking about here is probably best understood as having distinct programs or tracks of research going on within your laboratory at the same time. Within these programs or tracks, however, I don't think I mean that you should have a "wide focus" because that interferes with getting stuff done on a tactical level. Similarly, I think you need to be able to *describe* what you are going in a coherent manner in the context of one project or another, even if day to day you get results that could be part of any number of stories. Particularly when it comes to NIH grant seeking, it is imperative to be able to create a narrative that is highly focused....I'm just saying you should have sever such narratives!

  • brooksphd says:

    Ah, Ok. Cheers DM. I was waaaay over-reading it...

  • drugmonkey says:

    um, although I hesitate to ask, how does this term come across to the naive reader?

  • Exponential, even. Not Expontial.

  • Neuromancy says:

    I feel like this now as a graduate student applying for Post Doc positions! I've ended up working in the field that I'm in (source of inputs to dopamine/dopamine function) because that's what the PI in my undergrad department does, but I've got enthusiastic about it now I've studied it. I've often said I'd be quite happy working on pretty much any problem, and I'm more than happy to pick up new techniques! It has its pros and cons - There are plenty of options for me to chose from, but narrowing down the field is pretty hard. Things like "in vivo electrophysiologist wanted" aren't vacancy buzz words...

    Also, becca said:
    Except for electrophysiology. You can only be interested in doing that if you aren’t able to afford the mistress who knows how to use the flechettes right.

    I only know of flechettes as a military thing, am I missing a reference somewhere?

  • GMP says:

    Let me draw yout attention to two very recent posts by Massimo of Exponential Book, which deal with changing areas in your field.

    http://expbook.wordpress.com/2011/01/16/change-that-might-do-you-good/

    http://expbook.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/change-that-will-probably-do-you-no-good/

    I know PlS readers are mostly biomedical researchers, but I thought you migh appreaciate Massimo's standpoint (he's a theoretical physicist and in Canada, which means the funding venues are different than those discussed here and the cost per paper produced is smaller). He makes some good overarching points, such as people in other fields are not stupid -- it may be harder to revolutionize a field than you think, and staying in a field for long enough does correlate with higher recognition. You do not want to be Jack of all trades, a master of none. But also, money is important so you have to chase it (more so in some fields than others). As always, it's about striking a balance between cash flow, your technical interests and passions, and maximizing recognition; gettting the balance right is what makes it hard.

  • Odyssey says:

    Careful DM. He's not just a naive reader. He's an English naive reader.

    Thanks for the link love. I really should re-read that post myself every few months.

  • Namnezia says:

    One problem is that in trying to break into certain disease fields without having published in the field or having trained in a lab that published in the field is that it seems like will be met with a lot of skepticism (unless you have the coolest new technique in the planet which is usually not the case). This might be dangerous, I think, for a new investigator. Would it be better to wait until you have at least one publication in a new field before diverting your grant writing efforts?

  • becca says:

    this is the flechettes reference:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kushiel%27s_Dart

    Can you tell how I feel about my time as a wanna-be electrophysiologist?

  • Neuromancy says:

    I'm still quite confused... 😛 You mean ephys is for masochists? Yeah, I learned that already! I find it quite satisfying though when I see a spike on the oscilloscope knowing it's a neuron going about its business.

  • CoR says:

    I agree with Namnezia's point here, unless of course one can get in on a collaborative grant on the new topic with heavyweights or a least people willing to count you as the shiny new penny, sorta how I took DM above.

  • becca says:

    Not just masochists, but *born* masochists; people who love pain body and soul. And for people who can't find sufficient pain in the rest of life. That's who makes the best electrophysiologists.

  • Melissa's Bench says:

    Yes Namnezia is right. The downside to switching streams as a young investigator is the dreaded words "track record." I've had grants spurned because they didn't believe me when I said I could do something I'd done in six previous first-author publications! This is to make the point that you cannot just assert "I am an expert in field Y1 and so I can try my ideas out in disease Y2" and get a grant funded, no matter how related Y1 and Y2 are. Letters of collaboration help but are no guarantee. That is why I see jumping streams, so to speak, as something a mid-career (or at least already well-funded) PI can do, but not something a new, pre-tenure PI can afford to risk.

  • Namnezia says:

    @becca: "Not just masochists, but *born* masochists; people who love pain body and soul. And for people who can’t find sufficient pain in the rest of life. That’s who makes the best electrophysiologists."

    I disagree. You just never made it to the "other side" where you become one with your rig, and can patch a cell simply by holding the pipette with your hand and breathing deeply. 🙂

  • drugmonkey says:

    The downside to switching streams as a young investigator is the dreaded words “track record.” I’ve had grants spurned because they didn’t believe me when I said I could do something I’d done in six previous first-author publications!

    At some point you have to let reviewers tell you that you can't do something, rather than failing to try out of fear. Sometimes you will be pleasantly surprised. I certainly have on more than one occasion. Your vignette here is telling because you are illustrating the fact that you are going to get beat up by your own Bunny Hoppers too. Take a wander and let some other Badger Digger folks take a look at your amazing stuff.

    Also, I'm suggesting part of this is taking the long view about establishing programs of research in your own laboratory. A longer term plan that evolves over a couple of years and includes thinking about where you are going to devote your current resources.

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    In my naivete I thought the trainees in those labs were going to have it made, careerwise. I thought they were set up for nearly inevitable success. Didn't work out that way.

    What is this? Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Just the truth, Juniper, just the truth.

  • One of the most brilliant aspects of The Postdoctoral Experience is the unfettered ability to forage into unfamiliar scientific disciplines. It is widely expected that a postdoc will diversify herself during a postdoc, and the worst that can happen is a few years without a publication. Which is fine if you pick it up and publish some good stuff by the end.

    My concern, as Namnezia and others mentioned, is the "do some good shit!" carte blanche postdoc approach is difficult to employ as an independent investigator. Preliminary data and shit. Reputation blah blah. Hard to get the monies. But I *love* learning new techniques, new biological systems, new ways of using a Pipet-Aid. So it worries me as to how to smartly diversify oneself as a PI.

    My current approach involves doing X as a grad student, doing very different Y as a postdoc, and now- as I think about how I want to market myself for TT positions- doing even more different Z as a senior postdoc. But I'm afraid the fun will end in another couple of years. I'll just trust that there will be a way to make it happen when the time comes.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Candid,
    I think one difference is that it needs to be a coherent plan of attack that has a good chance of resulting in a new programmatic effort. This is not effing around on high risk new models for entertainment's sake.

  • Actually, depending on the model organism you are working in, forging in to new areas can exactly be "effing around on high risk new models for entertainment’s sake". If you are using model organisms that are fast, cheap, and relatively unregulated--e.g., microorganisms, C. elegans, Drosophila, etc--you can throw a bunch of wild shitte at the wall and see whatte stickes.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    So..that doesn't sound high risk, PP, now does it?

  • The point is that you can aggregate a lot of individually high-risk shitte into something that is not high-risk, and thus get the benefits of high-risk, high-reward research without the dangers.

    It's exactly like sub-prime mortgage collateralized debt offerings! What could go wrong? HAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!

  • Neuromancy says:

    becca, Namnezia, I've only done extracellular, so I've probably not experienced the full horrors of ephys! I always thought in vitro would be easier than in vivo single unit...

  • Ace says:

    Thanks, yes, what you said (diversify but focus within each) makes sense. I suppose I tend to think if I had more narrow interests, I'd be able to write more focused grants. But I should focus instead on finding specific aims within my diverse interests...

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