The end of year 2

Although the Gregorian calendar and my tenure track clock do not run entirely in sync, I find myself at the end of 2015 as well as at the end of my second year of the tenure track right around the same time. Looking back on 2015 is quite easy: virtually all I did was work. The friends I still have left will confirm this.
Looking back on year 2 of the TT is a bit scary. It means I'm almost halfway done and people are expecting output. One of the most ridiculous things in my bit of the world is the fact that the evaluation procedure at the end of the tenure track is pretty much spelled out at the start. There was a bit of room for negotiation before I signed the contract (but not that much, really) and it was made very clear to me that it was either in or out: if I didn't hit my targets, it would be over. In contrast to other places in the world, where I have seen examples of TT evaluations that actually leave some room for interpretation (e.g. "good output in terms of papers in respected journals"), the hoops I have to jump through leave very little room for anything. I need to publish X numbers of papers with at least Y number of impact factors. And those are the demands that still make some sense... With contracts like that you run the risk that people are going to sit there and make sure they tick all of the boxes. The problem is: that's not the kind of scientist I am. That's not the kind of human being I am. I like to feel like I am part of the place I work in. I like to do things that may pay off in the long run, rather than ensure I pass the next TT hurdle. This is academia, for crying out lout. I am not some kind of sales person that is expected to hit a certain quotum. Except for that, well, I am.
Personally, I think that if I set up an awesome network or a new line of research that attracts the interest of students that should count for something. But alas, it is not measurable and therefore it would be wiser for me to focus on blindly getting papers out than on some of the other things that I think are important for me to grow as a scientist as well.

And so, looking back on year 2, I feel pretty good about actually making my midterm evaluation (coming up at the end of year 3). I ticked all of the midterm boxes, as far as I can tell. I was fortunate enough to actually get some grant proposals funded, or it would have been bye bye already. But most importantly, I did well by just being me and by not focusing too much on what the powers that be actually demanded of me. Being a good scientist and teacher, it turns out, has sufficed so far. A scientist and teacher that worked her ass off, had two weeks off during summer and spent those sick and exhausted in bed and who barely made it to the Christmas break alive, but hey, those are details.

What I am worried about, however, is those X's and Y's that need to match up between reality and that stupid ass contract at the end of year 5. Oh, I could go on and on about how ridiculous it is to put easy-to-tick-off numbers and qualifiers on whether or not someone is a good scientist. I also tell it to everyone who wants to listen, including upper management. So it's not like I am blindly playing along with the system pretending it's all roses and fairytales. But I am finding that I am developing a pokerface when answering questions about my "progress", even though I am quietly shitting my pants.
It has taken up so much time and energy to set up the team and the experimental pipeline and now that everything is running smoothly for the past 6 months or so, papers should really start to come out this year. At least, I am getting more and more questions about this from the peeps that will actually be evaluating whether I am worthy of tenure ticked all my boxes at the end of the run. So I put on a brave smile and tell them we are "on track", but deep down inside I know that "on track" merely means we haven't derailed. We've barely left the station for most projects, encountering bumps in the road and troubleshooting like the cool science cowboys that we are. We are picking up steam but we're far from there yet. I am just hoping that scientific output (at least the one measured in papers) doesn't have to show a linear increase. Otherwise I might as well start packing up already.

Unfortunately there is a move in the future, which means massive disruption and delays, since I will have to set up everything at a new site again. Plus I will be required (as I was much of last year) to devote my time to designing lab spaces and office spaces and fights for equipment so my people won't suffer too much while I really should be focusing on science. All of this scares the bejezus out of me, but I'm not letting anyone in on that little secret. At least not the people that need to think I have my shit together.


With CNN covering the bloody attacks in Paris in the background, I am spending all of Saturday behind the computer. There is so much on the to do list, that I have to admit defeat: the list will never be finished. Ever. It will just grow and, if I'm lucky, every now and then I will be able to make a dent in it by softly pushing in the borders like a harmonica.

During the week I am so busy with who-knows-what, that the actual science has to wait until the weekend. And this is not even what I used to call science (as in: involving a pipette), but the stuff I now call science.

So after spending yesterday on politics, grading a student proposal (late) and a student thesis (also late) today I reviewed a manuscript for a journal (which was... late), a manuscript draft for a colleague that may become a collaboration (which I also promised to have finished a week ago), and worked on the program for a meeting I am organising next year.

A day in the life of a newish PI: 1 October

Following in the footsteps of the New PI over at, I decided to track my whereabouts today so that others (or wannabe PI's) can get a glimpse of what it's really like. I missed the first opportunity on 17 September, because I was too busy running around and I didn't keep track of my time. But better late than never, and so here I present: my October 1st.

I guess today was a good day. I actually spent time on science.

I woke up at 8:30. That is not typical at all, but I was completely exhausted after an intense stretch of teaching. I taught three 9 am classes on Monday (3 hours), Tuesday (3 hours)  and Wednesday (1 hour) and spent each of the evenings before preparing until well past 1 am. On Tuesday night I also gave a public outreach lecture and on top of everything I was teaching the Wednesday morning class in another city, which meant that I had to leave home at 7 am. I don't know how US presidents do it, but I tend to function less well after a couple of nights with only 5 hours of sleep.

8:30 - 9:00 I made coffee and checked my calendar (I switched from paper to iCal last year) and to do lists (it had a bit of a learning curve, but now I would be nothing without "Things") over breakfast (leftover pancakes - sad, I know). I then did what you are supposedly not to do at the start of your day, which is check e-mail (some say this will distract you from doing what you had actually planned to do). However, I had been postponing answering some e-mails because I was busy and there were also just a few small ones to get out of the way, including some teaching correspondence which mostly had to do with me not having access to a database I was supposed to be able to get into and the teaching administration people blaming it on "the system".

9:00 - 11:00 I went over the slides for the lecture I had to teach in the afternoon. Unlike the course I was teaching on Monday and Tuesday (which isI new and therefore takes forever to prepare because I have to generate all of the material from scratch), I did teach this class before. So I dug up my slides from last year and checked if any of them needed updating (I try to incorporate a bit of my own research and/or new findings from the literature into each class as much as possible) or whether I wanted to change the order. I didn't make all that many changes, but it still took me two hours for a two hour class. I don't think that is too uncommon.

11:00 - 11:30 I took a shower and got dressed, because I had to be at journal club at noon. I wasted ten precious minutes looking for clean underwear and two matching socks. While searching, I transferred my lecture from the iMac to the MacBook. Thank goodness for Wifi and Dropbox. Unfortunately, my laundry quest meant I was going to be late, because it takes more than half an hour to get to work.

11:30 - 12:10 I biked to work and ran to journal club.

12:10 - 14:00 Nice journal club session. We tore apart a Nature paper. As a PhD student and postdoc I never was super fond of journal clubs, although I could see their value. It just felt like they took me away from my 'real work'. These days, they are a welcome interruption and they actually count as "doing science". It also never ceases to amaze me how much more you get out of a paper when you read it with a whole group of people with different backgrounds.

14:10 - 14:55 I ran down, bought lunch and a coffee, ate it on the way back to my room, checked in with my people to see how everyone was doing and to inquire about the mice we operated on last night until 8 pm. Everyone was doing fine. Yay. Then I had a few discussion with different people about political issues (not the Hillary/Trump ones but the University/Career kind). I kicked everyone out of my office five minutes before my class started.

14:55 - 15:00 I ran down the stairs and set up my laptop. I am a pro now. Getting into the room early to make sure everything is working is for sissies. I can bluff my way through any audiovisual system. Although this room had a smart board and I didn't know how to combine beaming and writing so I ended up explaining Cre/lox technology using the old-fashioned whiteboard on the side wall. I opened the windows to let oxygen into the room, because I didn't want everyone to fall asleep.

15:00 - 17:00 I taught my class (to a small group of MSc students). It went well, they seemed to like it enough and I taught them new stuff (I regularly check to see how it connects to what they already know) and they stayed awake. What more can you wish for.

17:00 - 19:00 I read a manuscript that I had to review. The deadline was the day before yesterday. It's hard to believe that only two to three years ago I was one of those people who aways had everything finished in time, preferably a couple of days before a deadline. Now I am constantly chasing them, it seems. I was reviewing this manuscript with my postdoc (after asking permission from the editor) as part of the postdoc's academic training. Plus it's nice to exchange thoughts and talk about science, even if it is someone else's. This was the first review for this postdoc, so I needed to evaluate the review draft as well as the manuscript. Big papers (Cell, Nature and the like) still take me at least a day to review (usually with at least a night's sleep in between sessions), but this was a smaller one and I was able to evaluate everything in two hours.

19:00 - 20:30 My postdoc and I went over the manuscript, edited the first draft of the review, finalised it and uploaded it to the journal online review system. When we were done I had a new invitation for another review waiting in my mailbox.

20:30 - 21:30 I biked home and stopped along the way at a supermarket to buy food. Dinner was some battered fish from the oven with a bit of cucumber and a glass of wine. My mom is right. I should take better care of myself.

A new year

One of the best aspects of academia, is that you get to celebrate New Years twice per annum. The start of the 2015-2016 academic year (next week, where I'm at) offers a second opportunity for drafting resolutions. After a whole summer of preparing for a new class I am developing and teaching (which is turning out to be just about as much work as I had expected in my worst case scenario), these resolutions sound an awful lot like the ones from January. Make time for family and friends. Hell, make time for diner. Note to self: a non-microwave dinner.

So what does the new year have in store for me? Well, first of all I am going to be mid-way of (2.5 years into, that is) my tenure track some time in the spring of 2016. It's hard to believe how fast the time has gone. It feels like I just kinda know what I am supposed to be doing, but it means that I also have to start keeping an eye out for actual scientific output of my team (you know, publications).

What I felt like the first year.

When I started this job in 2013, I spent the first year like somewhat like the offspring of a sponge and a bouncing ball. I was so excited to have finally landed a position where I could set up my own lab and my own research. So excited to get a chance to do science my way, to become the mentor I'd always wanted to be and to figure out, step by step, what that actually was going to be. So excited to have the longest contract since high school, which felt like oceans of time spread out in front of me, with endless opportunities to branch out (while being aware of the danger of 'spreading to thin') into new directions, nurturing new collaborations, trying something crazy for a change. So excited to finally be learning something again myself. I knew I could do the postdoc thing, if I had to, but I wanted to grow as well. So I soaked it all up. The politics. The shenanigans. The organisational hassles. The lab management. I was thrilled, even if I had no clue what I was doing.

It took about a year and a half to get the proper funding (and hire the right people using said funding), which leaves me with the feeling that it only seems like things have been up and running for six months or so. Which means that I am almost midway of my tenure track, while in reality we've barely picked up momentum. That's a bit of a scary thought too, I must admit. So I'll just keep on doing what I have been doing: taking it one day at a time, while occasionally glancing at my whiteboard, which holds my grand master scheme for total world domination.