Principal Investigator (PI) Ponderings
As some of you get ready to start your own labs this semester, or strike out in search of the perfect academic position, I’d like to share a bit about what I’ve learned in my own journey as an Assistant Professor. These suggestions are in-line with my ruminations on life as a grad student and as a postdoc and are, of course, based solely on my own experiences. Please add to the list in the comments below if you’ve had different experiences or feel the list is missing something useful.
A new level. Compared to Grad school and Postdoctoral life, being a PI is a different game with different rules and different priorities. When we are in training, these responsibilities are largely hidden from us. I struggled with the transition despite feeling ‘ready’ to take on a faculty position. In hindsight, I’m not sure anything would have fully prepared me. It’s very much a situation where you just launch and adjust.
High gear looks different. Prior to this job, if I needed something done, I would kick it into high gear and get it done. Whether it was washing labware, some experiments, or writing and submitting a paper: I mostly controlled my fate. Being a PI is so different. Now, I evaluate, hire, and motivate people to do these things while I focus on other essential activities. Of all the transitions, this was—and continues to be—the most challenging for me.
Finish previous work. If your postdoc (or doctoral) work is not finished, try to finish it quickly. As a new PI, you want to be building your future, not dabbling in the past.
The hardest parts are new activities for which you have no training or exposure. Managing complex budgets that are dependent on the University’s fiscal year and the award schedule. Selecting and managing people (which I’ve written a bit about previously). Selecting and managing projects. Dedicating appropriate time to developing and teaching courses. For most folks, these will be completely new experiences for which they have no formal training. Take advantage of workshops or training opportunities on your campus to learn these skills if they are offered.
Recruiting as a new PI is tough. It’s hard to identify and connect with applicants that resonate with your research. There may be several reasons for this. First, you don’t quite have an independent trajectory yet, as most of your previous work was at a different institution and usually under the umbrella of your previous advisors. Second, you might be in a department that is not linked closely—or has a different title—than what recruits might be searching for. Finally, you are likely competing for students with other, more well-established, researchers on your campus. If you struggle with this, discuss it with your department head or faculty advisors. They often have excellent suggestions on how to get your name out in front of the people that you want to see it.
Death by 1,000 rules. Most new PIs don’t have administrative assistants—the administration falls on your shoulders. A brief list: Human Resource categories (and associated rules); purchasing—including knowing (and understanding) object codes, taxable items, redundant reimbursement forms, purchasing card rules; hiring deadlines and rules; graduate student assessments; undergraduate assessments; termination procedures and rules; trainings; certifications; chemical and biological safety rules; etc. No advice here, just a heads up. If you’re lucky like I am, your department will have several knowledgeable and generous folks in the main office and in the department with seemingly unlimited patience to help you.
Time sublimates. Give yourself 30 minutes a day to be with yourself. I begin every day with a self-care routine that consists of 10-minute meditation, 10 minutes of gratitude journaling, and 10 minutes of drawing. It’s the calmest 30 minutes of my day and sets me off on the right foot.
You are only as good as your weakest link. Sometimes you are the weakest link. Bi-annually, I take a critical look at where my successes were in the last 6 months, and where I could have done better. Evolve and grow with the job with a constant eye on improvement.
Be flexible and attentive. The needs of your lab group will change over time. Be attentive and flexible on your approach with running the lab. For example, after 18 months of having no set formal meetings (all meetings were ad hoc), we’ve recently transitioned back to having set meetings. The time was right to bring them back. If it doesn’t work, we’ll adjust in a new direction.
Your bad days matter more. This job is all about what you can get done on your bad days, not your good days.
Isolate yourself every day. My unproductive days usually involve numerous unplanned interruptions in the form of emails, drop ins, unexpected meetings, etc. Chunks of uninterrupted time are essential to get deep work done. Finding a way to minimize these interruptions is critical. Close your door. Work from home or a coffee shop (if that’s even a thing after COVID). Block distracting websites & email. Whatever works for you.
There will be doldrums. There is an ebb and flow to being a PI and running a lab. Streaks of unfunded grants. Good students moving on to new adventures, sometimes all at once. Difficult employees. Difficult colleagues. This is normal, don’t let it rock your boat too much.
Schedule writing time. Defend it valiantly. In semesters I don’t teach, I block ~2 h every weekday to write. Amid a proposal, I might spend 4-6 hours per day writing. Terms I do teach, I back this down to 1 h per day. Papers, proposals, ideas, data analysis. It’s all fair game. These small chunks add up over time and are much easier to manage than binge writing.
Use your chronotype to your advantage. If you find writing challenging, try to block writing time off during your ‘peak’ cognitive time. Here is an assessment to determine your chronotype that will help you identify when might be best to block off high quality time. (I’m a Lion)
Waive teaching in your 2nd year. Many research universities will grant you a teaching waiver for your first year so you can get your research program set up. In my experience, getting “set up” is like shopping on Amazon and waiting for everything to arrive. It takes time to get all the new toys in the lab, set up, and functional before research can happen. You’ll need to hire researchers as well. If it’s an option, it might be beneficial to teach year 1 and waive teaching in year 2 (or distribute your teaching load equally across your pre-tenure years). Use teaching in that first year as an opportunity to connect with students that are interested in your work. That’s how Brenna connected with us, and we made a movie about it:
Limit teaching preparation time. Someone wise once told me that the distribution of grades in classes you teach will be the same whether you spend 4 hours preparing or 20 hours. Impose a time limit on teaching, including developing courses, grading, and teaching—especially if you have a research-focused academic appointment. Schedule defined limits for teaching and class prep and don’t exceed them. Yes, you can be over-prepared for class.
Waste not, want not—to a point. There are many successful strategies to using startup funds. Buy equipment as you need it and not in anticipation of need. Many times, you will not actually need what you think you need. But keep in mind, the majority of your startup will go toward personnel, not equipment or data generation. So while it’s important to keep an eye on the cheapest prices for pipette tips, in the grand scheme of things, hiring the right people is orders of magnitude more important.
Know your lab finances. Trust, but verify, what your financial folks tell you. They can help track things down and are masters of the archaic labyrinths that are academic financial software systems. But they are often juggling as much as you and can miss things. I wish there were some good tools for managing lab finances, but I have yet to find one that checks all the necessary boxes. If you know of any, please leave a note in the comments.
Stay true to yourself. Temptation is to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. To do all the new fancy work with the new techniques. But you were hired for you – stay true to it.
Pace your lab’s growth. This was by far my biggest mistake early on. Don’t get over your skis & be strategic in how you grow. Slow & steady is better than fly & die.
Be very careful hiring friends or former colleagues. The shift in power dynamics can be tricky for inexperienced managers and for the person you hire.
“No” is hard now. “Yes” is hard later. When you’re new to a University, people are excited to have you there. A lot of things will be tossed your way under the guise of ‘opportunity’. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. You can say no.
Be empathetic. It takes near zero effort to say “Times are tough. I can’t give you clarity, but I can let you know that I’m here to support you.” Say it to your lab personnel. Say it to your students. Say it to your colleagues. When in doubt, reach out. Admittedly, I haven’t always been this person but am striving to be more so.
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