Archive for: July, 2014

It's not you, it's me.

Jul 08 2014 Published by under Careers, Life

We had something great. It really was. Great. And productive!


I didn't pay attention like I should have. I didn't do those little things. I became... complacent.

I'm sorry.

I've changed. Grown. I've moved on. I enjoy different things.

I'm... I'm seeing different people.

You should too.

And please...


Stop listing me as a fucking preferred reviewer!

5 responses so far

REPOST: Mid-tenure crisis

Jul 07 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

The inimitable DrugMonkey just reminded me that re-reading my 2008 post on my mid-career crisis is good for the soul. This originally appeared over at my old Blogger joint.

To clarify - this was a couple of years post tenure. It should probably be titled "Mid-career crisis."

In case you're wondering, I got that grant.


Originally posted August 21, 2008:

I have a confession to make. About a year ago I had managed to put myself in a position that should be avoided at all costs. In regards to my research program, I had become...


This is a bad, bad thing that no PI should ever do. I had been cruising along for about 7-8 years working away on a system, publishing a decent number of decent papers that garnered decent citations. Then about a year ago I was sitting on a bus going from Forsaken Conference Site in New England to the Boston airport. Sitting next to me was my good friend Rising Star Theoretician. RST 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, but things were trundling along okay, so there was no immediate incentive to do anything about it. RST reminded me that there is always incentive to tend to the future of your research program. Having a future research program is the incentive.* I will always be in debt to RST for giving me a verbal kick in the pants.

I got lucky twice here. The first time was with RST's pep talk. The second time was a few months after that. I had just read a paper written by Benevolent Bioscientist, someone who had co-founded the field I was hoping to develop my new research program in. For reasons that are still unclear to me, BB had befriended me about a year previously and so I now knew him quite well. Anyway, the predictions he had made in this paper struck a chord. THIS was where I was headed. Or at least, some part of it. So I called BB to chat about his paper and the many opportunities it offered. BB told me I should work on protein X (one of the opportunities outlined in his paper). He said "I've been meaning to work on X for 10-15 years now and, to be honest, I don't think I'm ever going to get around to it. You should do it. Let me know how I can help." I knew protein X was important and I knew this was a generous offer. What I didn't quite grasp at the time was how important protein X is, and consequently how generous a gift this was. Protein X is a key player in not just one, not just two, but numerous disease states, including mental, cardiac and immune system disorders. And it's not understood at the molecular level. Protein X is an untapped goldmine that will lead to publications that are much more than "decent." And will lead me to NIH funding (I'm NSF-funded because of the nature of my previous work).

So here we are about a year after RST's pep talk. The old research program is (in hindsight predictably) rapidly dying. I have about one more decent publication I can squeeze out of that work. The all new research program based on protein X is still in its infancy, but it's growing stronger each day. Working on protein X has meant learning a whole new set of skills (I didn't train as a protein chemist), but fortunately I'm surrounded by colleagues who are willing to help. The timing is unfortunate (purely my own fault). I had to submit a renewal of my NSF grant in mid July. Obviously it had to be on protein X (there's plenty of basic science regarding X). It's not clear I had quite enough preliminary data (protein X is difficult to make because of its interesting properties), so I may be facing a funding gap for the first time.** But I'm having a blast in the lab. In fact, I'm more enthusiastic about my research than I have been in years. Staring from scratch again has been, and continues to be, hard. But I'm having fun.


* 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'm working hard to avoid this. I will put in the two page update in the Fall, although I'm well aware those don't buy you much. More importantly I'll be presenting our data on protein X at a small meeting in early October. A number of the review panel members will be there, as will at least two of the people I suggested as reviewers (NSF does use reviewer suggestions - you'd be a fool not to provide some). With the exception of a much-needed two week vacation, since July I've been busting my guts making protein X and doing experiments. Come the end of September I will have the data. I hope.


Original comments from way back then:

Goose said...
Good luck and all the best with Protein X. It sounds like you have a good plan, and I truly believe good plans are usually rewarded.

While I've fled the protein chemistry field, I still remember the odd thing and if there's anything I can do to help please let me know.
Thursday, August 21, 2008 at 10:29:00 AM EDT

JollyRgr said...
Good luck from me also.....and more importantly....I have a good feeling about this change of's right!
Thursday, August 21, 2008 at 1:13:00 PM EDT

Abel Pharmboy said...
Came by via the good folks at DrugMonkey - they are much better at finding "new" old blogs than I.

You are very fortunate that RST felt comfortable to give you this kick in the pants but also that you were receptive (and not self-deceiving) enough to act upon it. Without knowing anything about your field, my guess would be that you'd continue pumping out the decent papers you describe but that you'd ultimately have trouble getting your grant renewed.

I had a senior committee member who changed fields (or a significant fraction of the their lab efforts) every ten years. It seemed to keep them quite energized.

I admire you for taking this step - might even be time for a little self-examination myself.
Friday, August 22, 2008 at 11:00:00 PM EDT

Candid Engineer said...
Visiting/staying via DrugMonkey.

Kudos to you for being receptive to constructive criticism. It is hard to hear, but invaluable. Really nice that your friend had the balls to be candid with you. Glad things are moving in an interesting new direction.
Sunday, August 24, 2008 at 7:22:00 PM EDT
Milo said...
i'm jealous. i've been working on the same damn problem for 10 years and i don't get the choice to change.

i probably would have punched RST first, and then thanked him ;o)
Monday, September 1, 2008 at 9:11:00 PM EDT

Anonymous said...
I have always thought of things like 5yr plans were very general in nature, that is, the goals were general (to land a TT position, etc). But, as we all know, details matter.

I was just curious about your 5 year detailed is it? For example, do you plan out the number of pubs per year? Do you plan out which/how many grant deadlines to target? (All Without knowing how the data will turn out!)

Or are you more general about it
Tuesday, September 9, 2008 at 3:23:00 PM EDT

Anonymous said...
sorry, i will try to proofread my posts in the future and avoid using the word "general"
Tuesday, September 9, 2008 at 3:26:00 PM EDT

Odyssey said...
Good questions. I'm planning a post on five years plans. It might take a day or two or three. If I don't get around to it before the end of the week I'll post a quick reply as a comment here.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008 at 5:32:00 PM EDT

Samia said...
Woo! Good luck! 🙂
Friday, January 28, 2011 at 4:03:00 PM EST

3 responses so far

Not trained for it

Jul 03 2014 Published by under Careers

Years ago, I was a postdoc at Johns Hopkins. When I was leaving there to start my tenure-track position here at Big State U, the chair of the dept at Hopkins, one Jeremy Berg (aka Datahound), dropped by to say goodbye. Something he said to me has stuck with me all these years.

You have not been trained to do what you are about to do.

He was absolutely right.

Despite the ubiquitous hand-wringing about academia only training PhDs and postdocs to be future faculty, truth is, we don't even get that right.

We're not trained to teach. Or manage people. Or manage a lab budget. Or serve on committees. Many are not trained to write grants. Or devise and run a research program. Program, not project.

The tenure-track years are all about on-the-job training.

The sooner you embrace the fact that you don't really know what you're doing, and neither does anyone else on the TT, the sooner you can work to fix that.

9 responses so far

No advice on surviving the TT

Jul 03 2014 Published by under Careers, Life

There's a lot of advice that can be given on surviving your tenure track years. The single most important IMNSHO is to learn how and when to say...


Junior faculty often have a hard time with this. They worry that saying no too often will make them look like poor colleagues and hurt their tenure chances. Certainly saying no to everything will do that. But saying yes to everything will also hurt your tenure odds. You won't have enough time to work on all that other stuff (grants, papers, teaching, more grants, more papers, more teaching, etc.).

And yet, junior folk will be asked to perform service (sit on committees etc.).* Especially if they're women. Especially if they're people of color. And if you're a woman of color? You'll be asked to serve on every imaginable committee.

How much is enough, how do you choose which things to do, and how do you say no to everything else?

In terms of how much is enough, ask. Often. Find yourself a senior faculty mentor if you don't already have one.** Ask them. Ask your chair. Do some digging and try to find out how much service work recently tenured folks did. It's really not hard to get ahold of people's cv's - they're often posted online. Or you could simply ask them.

What you choose to do is largely up to you. Yes, there will be those occasions when your chair/dean/senior person will ask you to sit on a certain committee because "it will be good for you"/"you're the right person"/they just need a warm body and everyone else said no. But you really do have a lot of control here. Say yes to those things that you care about and/or you think are important.

How do you say no? That's actually much easier than you might initially think. "I would, but I've already agreed to do x, y, and z." "That sounds like a great opportunity, but unfortunately it overlaps with [insert essential task(s) here]." "My mentor thinks I'm already doing enough/too much service and has told me to say no to everything else." *** Even "The tenure clock is ticking too quickly, I don't feel I have enough publications and/or funding, so I'm going to have to decline."

Yes, they're going to try to guilt/shame/beat you into doing things you don't want to and/or shouldn't be doing. Be strong. And polite. But still say no. Especially if you think what you're being asked to do is not suitable for someone without tenure.

Learn to say no. You'll thank me.


* I talk about service/committees here for simplicity. Learning how and when to say no is useful for many other things you'll encounter on the TT (e.g. unwanted collaborators).
** I cannot stress how important this is to your survival of the TT. Find someone who will be completely honest with you. Who will have your back if necessary. It's nice if their work is related to yours, but that's not as important as the previous two criteria. Really.
*** A good mentor will do this for you. And will take the heat.

2 responses so far