Yesterday, you were an accomplished postdoc. Today, as you open the door to your very own — very empty — lab, you've suddenly become a principal investigator. And soon, you'll become "a manager and a mentor and an advisor and a cheerleader and all these other things," said Emmitt Jolly from Case Western Reserve University during a career symposium hosted by New York University in November. As academic faculty, he added, "you're running a small business."
And, like any small business, getting your lab off the ground is the toughest part. "When I got a job, I walked into my lab and just had this big empty space," Jolly said. "For the first two weeks you're just sitting there in the lab, by yourself, with nobody. You used to have a lab where you could talk to at least one person. This is just you and a blank wall."
While the postdoc-to-PI move is nearly always taxing, young investigators can take certain steps to ease the metamorphosis. At the NYU symposium, faculty from all levels of the tenure-track totem pole offered advice for new assistant professors on how to get an independent research program going with as few disruptions as possible.
Bring it with you
Vanderbilt University's Roger Chalkley said he was "utterly clueless" when he made the move from his postdoc to an assistant professorship at the University of Iowa. When he interviewed there, Chalkley had no understanding of what a start-up package was. "So I didn't negotiate a nickel," he said. "I was told 'Here's the lab you're going to be in. It's a nice, well-equipped modern lab.'" When looking through it, however, Chalkley thought the stocked lab was hardly well equipped and anything but modern. But he "smiled sweetly" and took the offer, he said. By the time he arrived on campus, "the rest of the faculty had raided the lab and took out anything of value," he said. "I ended up with nothing, and no start-up monies."
But Chalkley had something unexpected: eight or so projects derived from his postdoc work that were quickly readied for publishing once he had help. "I took with me a whole bunch of partly formed projects, got these two students, and immediately, the three of us working together put these together and in the first year produced eight papers," Chalkley said. "That was very helpful in terms of getting grants." Two years later, Chalkley was promoted to associate professor. Having projects ready to go "puts you in a very, very strong position, because ultimately, publications are currency with which you negotiate your promotion and tenure," he said.
NYU School of Medicine's Michael Long arrived at his first faculty position there with an ace up his sleeve: a National Institutes of Health K99 award.
But for those who have no prior funding, there's no way forward but to start writing grants right away.
Among other expectations of you in your first years as an assistant professor — not least of which are teaching and service — you have to publish papers, write grants, and recruit lab members. Case Western's Jolly said that to get students and staff, you first ought to get online. "You want a lab Web site as soon as possible because most people will find you online," Jolly said.
Hunter College's Jayne Rayper added that after a recent overhaul of her lab's Web site, she received 10 new applications from prospective lab members in the first week.
Techs and trainees
For Jolly, a dependable lab technician is well worth the salary and benefits. "Find the best technician you can because you will spend a lot of time training initially, but the better your technician, the better chance of getting [your lab] up and going so you can do other things," he said.
From there, he said, it's time to recruit trainees. "Get good people," he said, but more importantly, "get people you can train." Jolly added that from a management standpoint, it's better to hire driven students and postdocs than those who are good on paper. "For me, getting a person who is committed, who wants to work hard, is more important than the person who has a 4.0, because I can take a person who's a 3.2 and make them a 4.0, but I can't take a 4.0-person with no drive and make them committed to doing good science," he said.
When recruiting lab members, Hunter's Rayper finds what she called "dog and pony" shows beneficial. When new trainees on rotation convene in her department, "I do this sort of sparkly show and say 'Look, you can come to my lab and do this if you're interested.'" Through these, Rayper said she has found that trainees appreciate a PI who demonstrates that her students' work is valued. "I've discovered that telling them 'I have a problem and I had this great hypothesis and it was wrong, and here's the data to show it was wrong, and I don't know what I'm going to do now,' they all want to come and help me." This approach is favorable to an "I'm the most awesome thing" pitch, she said, because potential trainees "feel you actually value their brains. And you do; you really need them to help you. … By yourself, you will not succeed."
Intro to management
With that in mind, Rayper said it's paramount that beginner PIs treat their trainees with respect. "If you're a tyrant, they will tell all the other students and you won't get any more," she said. "You'd better be nice if you want to have a cat's chance in hell of getting more of them into the lab because they all talk to each other and tell each other everything about you."
By the same token, Chalkley stressed the importance of letting your staff know they're appreciated. "Oftentimes we forget to go over and talk and say 'You're doing a great job, I couldn't run this shop without you,'" he said. "If everybody in my office walked out, then I may as well quit the next day because I couldn't do a damn thing."
In addition, you probably didn't learn to balance a lab budget as a PhD student or postdoc. According to Chalkley, building a rapport with your department's business manager is critical, since that person has access to your group's balance sheets. "It's really important that you actually learn how to read the balance sheet," he said, adding that "it is actually valuable to get these monthly reports so that you can plan ahead."
On track for tenure
It's equally important, Hunter's Rayper said, that junior faculty cultivate their own mentors. "You've got to use the people who've been through the process and use them as much as you can to help you," she said.
For Case Western's Jolly, having colleagues and mentors to turn to is key to tenure success, as your department often initiates the tenure and promotion process. He spoke about building a support team within his department, using the analogy that as junior faculty, "you need to form a mafia — you need a godfather on your side, you need some swingers on your side."
Jolly added that, through interactions with his own mentor and departmental peers, he has come to understand that requirements for tenure go beyond what's in the faculty manual. "I know how many grants I need to get, I have an idea about how many papers I've got to have. My strategy now is making sure that there's a relationship with the same people who will be reviewing my package," Jolly said. More specifically, Jolly meets with his senior faculty mentor once a month. "He wants to make sure that I'm on track to make tenure," he said. "Having a good mentor I think will be the biggest advantage for me, so my advice is find a mentor or several mentors."