What it takes to become a PI: on something undefinable

Drugmonkey has an interesting post up in which he discusses a piece with 8 points of career advice by someone who didn't make it onto the tenure track (note that I do not see this as "failure", but since this is a career that the author really wanted they ultimately did, literally, "fail" to get it).

Drugmonkey summarizes the piece as one piece of advice: "publish". I drew a different conclusion from the 8 pieces of advice altogether. I do agree that publishing is important (how could I not), but in this particular case what I take from the piece as an overarching summary is "take charge". That may sound odd, because so much of what happens to us during our career feels like chance/luck/serendipity. And it is. But let me try to explain...

Now I don't know the author of the piece, but even from the small bits of information disclosed throughout the column, I recognize his 'type' as I have seen others like him - good scientists, dedicated scientists, but not necessarily "PI material". That may sound harsh and indeed, it is, but after being a PI myself for a while now and after reading so many proposals from aspiring junior scientists, there is something that  will ultimately rise up from every application and piece of writing that I see like smoke from a camp fire. And this is either a collection of tiny little steps (neither a deal breaker in and by themself), a pattern, if you will, that cumulatively show evidence of someone who is taking charge or someone who has drifted a long. Now, both may have worked equally as hard, which is what makes it so unfair and so intangible. And precisely because it IS the sum of all their efforts, I think you cannot pinpoint "getting a tenure track position" or "getting tenure" to one specific criterium. You can, however, summarize it as one overarching behavior: take charge. And this is not something that you can "pull off" by working hard as a postdoc for a few years. It is not a line on your CV. It is not even counted in number and quality of publications. It is something that has to penetrate every fibre of your being for the entire length of your career.

Now, the person who wrote the Nature career column with advice sounds like a good experimentalist and a meticulous bench scientist with a great love for science to boot (anyone who does that many postdocs must really love science). With 19 publications (and 5 as first author) they come across as a good collaborator. As someone answering the questions in front of them, they certainly sound like an asset for any lab. But those are the makings of a staff scientist - a position that is, alas, too non existent in current academia (but that's a different topic entirely). All of these things are, however, not enough to make it as a PI - where you need to take charge and do your own research and planning for what comes next. You cannot sit back and be too passive. The author themselves write it in one of the first paragraphs: they were complacent. I don't think they were complacent on purpose. I don't think this is even easily recognizable in specific events or incidences, where you might pull someone aside and say: "I noticed you were really complacent/not taking charge when you did X". Which is why this overall pattern of behavior can continue even in the presence of other output indicators that might signal "on the road to success" (note again that I am only calling this "success" because this is what it would have been in the eyes of the author of the column. More power to you if you recognize that there are plenty of places outside of academia where you can grow and thrive, be successful and do good for the planet because I think there are plenty of such places and we need more PhDs in those positions to ensure a better tomorrow for all life on earth). But perhaps especially because other indicators will signal that things are going well (there is another publication, another conference presentation, the PI is happy/has nothing to complain about because their work gets done), this can be a total blind spot for the person in question.

Note that I am not saying that you shouldn't collaborate or think about the interests of others: I've always been the person discussing other people's projects and helping them wherever I could. Talking and doing science with your lab mates/colleagues is part of the fun of the job. You don't have to be an egocentric asshole who is only furthering their own career (I wouldn't want those people in my own lab even if they brought me Nature papers by the dozen) - but you also shouldn't let your own scientific output suffer or come second. You have to look out for number one and if I have learned one thing as I am getting older it is that nobody will ever care about your success and development as much as you do. Even if they try.

So, there you have it: You need to be pro-active.

Come up with your own research questions - even if there is no need. Indeed, as Drugmonkey mentions: maybe the most important reason to pursue my own lab was when I ultimately realized I had so many questions that I wanted to answer, that it was simply inevitable. Even a permanent job as a staff scientist would not have brought me the fulfillment that I get from being a PI because I could never run that many projects in parallel and dive so deep into the topics that really interest me. (I never thought about it that way, but that is a really big part of why I became a PI: I didn't so much want to DO science as I have questions and an insatiable curiosity about my research fields - thanks Drugmonkey, for that insight).
Make a name for yourself (and this will happen automatically if you have your own ideas/opinions/output that you spread at conferences, it doesn't require really artificial "networking" just for networking's sake - I used to hate networking because I am an introvert with room to grow in the social interactions department, until I realized that 'networking' occurs when you start discussing things you really care about with others. So you can have an in-depth, on topic discussion and network at the same time. It is win-win!).
Find out how to move forward EVEN when you think your PIs are looking out for your career and best interests (one could argue that the author's PhD and postdoc supervisors were in fact not having his best career interest's in mind if nobody ever told him that 12 years as a postdoc with limited first author publications was pushing it).

I want to stress that I don't have a fixed idea of what a PI should be like - nor there I think there should be a narrow definition for this (I certainly don't fit the typical mold of a dominant leader whom everyone respects and is impressed with at first sight). But there is one thing that I know I do have (even though it may not always show on the outside): deep down inside I am confident and autonomous about the path ahead of me - even if I don't know where that path is taking me, I am prepared for the next step. What it means is that I take charge of my science and my own development - and I have done so since the first time I set foot into a lab. That holds for the experiments (where you do have to continuously doubt your results because you can never be too critical of your own science - but it shouldn't result in paralysis!), the background reading (about my scientific topic, about my personal development, about opportunities/challenges/academia), the presentation and dissemination of my results (and that includes the writing up and publishing of everything you do - Drugmonkey is right here, of course).

I have done all of the above for as long as I can remember. That doesn't mean I always know what I am doing. For my entire life, I have been doubting myself a large part of the time. I suspect that a lot of the typical alpha males just push forward on their science oblivious to a lot of other aspects of the job/their personality and I am sometimes jealous of them. But I am quite certain that all of those tiny little steps where I actively took charge have ultimately combined to make me "PI material".

The boss of me

There are times (and these weeks appear to be such times) when I don't feel like I am fit for running a lab at all. Usually it is because I have way too much stuff to do (teaching, grading, traveling, sitting in meetings, fighting administration) - stuff that my lab doesn't benefit from and either doesn't know goes on or thinks is taking too much of my time.

And now, the week before I take a much needed break, I finally have some time to catch up with some science for a change and I find that projects are not running smoothly, some people don't do what I thought we had agreed on, while others depend on the results and are now freaking out, which makes me freak out. On top of that, I find that I am intimidated by my own postdoc, who always has a reply to no matter what I say and who sometimes makes me feel like I am stupid and incapable. And who has too much work on their plate, and therefore not yet finished any of it, but who refuses help and support whenever I offer. I think I need to manage this more and be more strict about who does what and what data belong to whom, but I don't have the will nor the energy.

I am so freaking tired.

Debbie Downer

Is it normal to feel like this two months after getting tenure? I presumably have all I have ever worked for,  and yet I increasingly catch myself thinking: 10 more years, and then I am out of this crazy environment. I am constantly dreaming about my back up career - but I have no time to work on it on the side, like I had always imagined. There is absolutely nothing romantic about being an academic. The only upside about the presumed freedom (education/teaching always comes first) is that I can just show up late on days where it is simply too much for me to handle. I have been showing up late way too frequently.

It could be hormones, it could be total exhaustion and me being in need of a serious break - but I felt down all week. There is simply too much on my plate. I had to do experiments for one full day (one student couldn't operate an expensive piece of equipment and for another experiment my technician needed an extra pair of hands so I played assistant). It was good to get my mind off of all the boss business I usually fill my days with, but also a good reminder that I really do not miss bench work at all. Couldn't care less. I don't mind it either, but it doesn't make me happy. Just give me a computer and an office and leave me alone.
Except for the fact that of course I am never really left alone. I'm just running from meeting to meeting, from problem to problem with the piles of 'to do' and 'to read' and 'to grade' on my desk getting higher and higher. This week I was in a meeting for 2 hours and I had 20 e-mails waiting for me when I came back. I think half of it was spam. I may have deleted some important ones as well. Ah well. I had a meeting for which I had to read 40 pages of text and I had 15 minutes to prepare (thank goodness for my increased ability to play bluff poker). My to do list is now prioritised by the people who ask me "did you do this yet" after which "this" gets moved to the top (where it should have been weeks ago already, but where it was pushed out with other equally pressing to do's).
I just didn't like my job this week and I felt sorry for myself. Which I know is not productive, but sometimes I just cannot help it. Quite frankly, I left work in 'fuck this shit' mode last night. For now I don't care about grants, about papers or about anybody else. I just care about me and the fact that it feels like I am all alone, treading water to just prevent myself from sinking. I am so overwhelmed and under equipped that it feels like all I am doing is putting out fires with a leaking bucket.

I'm a grown up now

Unlike Janis Ian, I didn't learn the truth at seventeen. It took me well until I was 40 years old before I shed my last ounce of naiveté. I guess my thanks go to the other two grown ups who lied straight to my face in the past two weeks. And I'm not talking about a little white lie. No, I am talking about me asking them a question and them responding "alpha" when I knew the truth to be "omega".
Of course I was't just truth-stalking them - these people were breaking rules left and right and causing discomfort for many other people (this is al non work related, by the way).

I am so disappointed in grown ups, it makes me really sad.

Sitting at the grown up table

I don't know if there is a causal relationship, but since I got tenure (now some 2.5 months ago - yay!) I have found myself in an increasing amount of grown-up meetings. You know, with adults, often full professors and higher management, 10-20 years older than I am. And with fancy sandwiches, that you are supposed to eat (because: polite) while also making sure nothing drips down your chin (because: awkward) and always being ready to speak (because: need to get your voice heard). Some are once-only meetings, others are committees. All of them leave me baffled and confused about the state of grown up affairs. Here are the major faux-pas:

1. The chair usually doesn't chair. There is no agenda, no structure. Everyone sort of yells things, some things end up on paper, others don't. The chair doesn't summarise, lead or focus. It usually ends in a lump of stuff hanging in the air and then we are kicked out the room because ah, well, time is up and nobody was paying attention. I was editor in chief of my high school news paper and even at 16 I ran meetings that were more organised than this.

2. Pictures are not always worth more than a thousand words. Details are for kids. The grown up meetings are about big picture views. About future strategies for the university. About a point on the horizon. About visionary breakthroughs. You know the synonym for big picture views is you're not careful? Blabla. I am all for ambition and setting major goals. I can dream as big as anyone. But if I listen closely, these meetings never reach the stage where we actually end with something concrete. Suddenly I know why the upper-upper management is so out of touch with what happens on the floor. Because even one level up from where I used to be, the details are forgotten and we already talk in glossy-magazine paper. It sounds nice, but does it have a backbone?

Oh my. How am I going to make sure I don't become one of these people? How do I make sure I still keep an eye out for the reality that we are actually living in? I think this is a good example of why we need age diversity in our ranks. Because I may feel like a toddler slowing them down or holding and back, but at least every now and then I can also make them stop and really look at the world again. Then again, maybe not just youth but also hope is wasted on the young.

Looking Back

Now that I have had tenure for about 30 days, the realisation has slowly sunk in. I can feel myself slowing down (my blood pressure has literally dropped a few points). And I have decided to grant myself this time to slow down, for the first time in almost 20 years.

Has anything changed?

Yes. I have never been someone who kept their mouth shut, but now I am definitely more outspoken when it comes to organisational and political issues. It is not so much that I did not dare to speak up before (I did, both dare and speak up), but it feels as if if now I also deserve to speak up and be heard. I am not just visiting, I am here for the long run. This is also really my organisation now. My vote counts - I am no longer speaking up just for show, it's serious business.
I am also going in full force to protect and fight for the well being of my team members whenever required (and as far as I can exert some influence, obviously). It feels as if a new confidence has come over me, that I didn't even know was hiding somewhere. And it is really good to find out that she had been there all along: as I was struggling to make it, she kept quiet. She waited in hiding, until it was time to come out and shine. And now she has taken center stage. It turns out that tenure has been my Patrick Swayze and nobody can and will put me in the corner any longer.

Not everything has changed because of tenure (I think). A lot of it also has to do with time passing. You see, my confidence didn't just wait in hiding in some sort of coma. She was actively learning and developing as I grew into my role of PI and teacher. We both matured in the past 4 years. As I sucked it up, she absorbed it like a sponge. And as much as I still think it is crazy that it now commonly takes until you almost reach the age of 40 before you can really become an independent scientist, I must admit that I am much more ready now than I was 4 years ago. The funny thing is, you can only see it when you stop for a minute, capture your breath and turn around to look back at all the ground you have covered.
In the first year of my TT, I enjoyed myself. Everything was new, I was learning new things (both in content and skills) every day. In year two, the honeymoon was over and I just felt completely overwhelmed and constantly doubting my abilities and future success. I took problems home, I was stressed and worried. Year three has been like detox. I learned to let things go that I couldn't control and to really take control of the things that I could. And for the first time in many years, I actually have found some of the fun in science back. I'm reading more. I'm granting myself time to mull over ideas. I can actually feel myself acting like a scientist.

Has anything not changed?

Yes. I am doing the same amount of crazy teaching and grant writing. With the same variable success.
I still get disappointed by grown ups and I am still frequently amazed by my students. But we all need some form of stability in our lives.


The strangest thing has happened. Perhaps a wormhole opened up. I have no other explanation for the anomaly that evidently occurred in the midst of Brexit, Trump and all other random craziness and university politics. But my tenure track committee got together for my midterm evaluation and in all their infinite wisdom decided to give me tenure.
I guess, in the words of the great Sally Field, they like me. They really, really like me. A weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I can now open my mouth, speak my opinion even louder than I did before, get involved in politics, think long term and fight for my people and what is right instead of fighting for my own survival.
It's weird though, I thought that I still had a while to go and so now it comes as a bit of a surprise that I have made it to the top of the mountain and came out a winner in the academic survival of the fittest. There are no more hoops to jump through. Just a couple of years and then I will be too old for all the career development awards with time-post-PhD-award deadlines. I can buy a house. I can relax. But I will also admit, that while fireworks were going off in my head when I heard the news, a little part of my heart broke, unaccustomed to stability and security, and thought: but wait a minute... so this is it?

And indeed, if this is it, then what am I going to do with the rest of my life? I've been mulling over that thought for the past few weeks and the answer is that, quite frankly, I don't know yet. This must be why athletes prepare for the next Olympics even after winning gold. Because there is passion and dedication and true grit in the struggle for success. Once achieved, you have to identify new goals and challenges. And that's not something you do overnight when you've just had your eyes on the same ball for 20 years.

Work, Life and Balance

I took one and a half weeks off over Christmas and New Year's, which mean I will start work again tomorrow. And I so do not feel like it!
I barely made it to Christmas, I was on the verge of collapsing and during the holidays I just read, did yoga and slept. I was once again too close to complete exhaustion (I had a burnout during my PhD so I know all the telltale signs like the irregular heartbeat and the headaches and the tense muscles and the general apathy and overall lack of willpower). Well, at least the willpower is back (I have been eating properly during my Christmas break with zero pounds gained - yeah) and I feel more rested and energetic but I still feel like a little kid who just doesn't want to go back to school after the holidays.
Unfortunately, I must. In fact, there is a massive grant deadline looming - not even on the horizon, but right in front of me. I had allocated time (in my calendar if not in reality) before the break, but I was too tired to do anything or come up with any ideas at all. So now I have to squeeze all of that work into the next four weeks (yikes) and on top of that my people need attention.

But this year I am putting my priorities straight. And my number one priority is going to be me. I need to take care of myself and be healthy, or this is not going to work. The second priority is to produce output - which means the focus needs to be on science (papers, grants, analyses) and not on teaching. This should align with my goal of making an impact. And not in terms of factor, but in terms of finding my own way of making a mark on the world. And for that I need my health and happiness - and I must admit that I have put those behind work for far too long.

I've thought about all of this over the holidays and I think I have come to terms with the fact that I will just never be a scientific rockstar. And that is okay. Because it doesn't mean that I cannot be a rockstar in some other realm, I just need to figure out the way.
I will probably also forget about all of this as soon as I am back in the crazy academic rollercoaster but this year I am going to fight it with all my might. I at least want to feel like I am in the driver's seat for a change.

It's a wonderful life

You know them - the movies in which the main character wakes up as someone else. Someone simpler - who suddenly has a family with kids (he hates them at first, then grows to love them) instead of his glorious job (it's usually a he). It's the story of the Christmas classic "It's a wonderful life" with Cary Grant. It's the story of "The Family Man" (Nicholas Cage). It's the story of many a Hollywood blockbuster, actually, in which the main character learns to appreciate what they have. Or in which they learn to be happy with less than what they had at the outset.

I've been thinking a lot about this lately - because it feels like I've been through my own version of this classic movie tale. I'm just not sure that I've reached the happy ending yet - or that I ever will.

You see - once upon a time I was a science snob. I was trained (both postdoc and PhD) in rich labs in top institutions. It's the world I knew and the world I wanted to be a part of. Then life happened and it turned out to be insanely difficult to find a place to set up my lab. Fast forward and here we are, three years later, at my current university. Don't get me wrong - I really like it there. I like the teaching, creepy time sucker that it is. I like being exposed to strange new worlds. I like my colleagues. But I hate that everything is a struggle. I hate that the equipment is old and that the infrastructure is not the best in the world. I am so proud of my people for what they are able to achieve - much more proud than I have ever been at anything I ever achieved in my wealthy institutions where science was basically handed to me on a silver platter.  They are doing experiments in much more difficult circumstances. I was fed with a golden spoon - and I didn't realize it AT ALL at the time.
But now that I am on the other side of the fence (still capable of doing decent science, don't get me wrong, and far better off than many others in countries south and east of my borders) I realize it ALL OF THE TIME.

Just today I was in a meeting with a bunch of international colleagues from all over and the divide stuck out to me like a sore thumb. It was clear that there were scientific haves and have-nots. And it was clear to me that I was in the second category. And it was also clear that the ones in the first category were completely and blissfully unaware of how good they had it.

So I have had my wake up moment. I think I am a better person for it, because nobody likes a snob - even when it comes to just scientific affairs. But now what? Cary Grant may have discovered that he should work less and love his family more. Nicholas Cage may have realized that he liked his simpler life much better than his high-paced overachiever job. But I am not so sure yet. I'd much prefer a faster qPCR machine and better institutional support. And I don't have a family to snuggle up to when I get home - I just got the short end of the deal with nothing in return. Same crazy hours, same crazy hard work, but with far less to show for it. I am just scared that I am going to end up old and bitter - because the reality is that the chances of becoming a science superstar in a less than top-notch environment are just slim. And I never got into this business to be second rate.
And so, like Psych Girl, I am thinking about what I want to be. Because I started out climbing Mount Everest and I am finding out that maybe I am just going to be stuck at basecamp. Sometimes I'm perfectly fine with that, but it's the week before Christmas, I am dead tired and being surrounded by my superstar colleagues during this meeting today was not inspirational at all. In fact, it brought out the worst in me: I felt stupid, unproductive and self-conscious. And at the same time I was jealous of them and angry that they didn't see how good they have it. Not an attractive response to say the least, but at least I know where it came from, I think. I saw a glimpse of my old life - and it made me yearn for the days when I was a science snob. Because sometimes life is a little more wonderful when you are just living in your own perfect little bubble.

So now what?


To every person that still thinks "ah, but Brexit or Trump would never happen in my country", remember this the next time an elections comes around the corner.

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