One of the hardest questions that has recently come up in my professional life is debating changing institutions pre-tenure. I came to my medical school not that long ago. Over the past year and change, I have set up my laboratory, hired personnel, committed to thesis committees, taught, and submitted some grants. I have made personal and professional connections. I have long proclaimed my love of being a basic scientist in a clinical department. But there have been some issues, some large enough to consider a change. Advice from my Chair and faculty mentors is sincere, but how much of it is biased by their tenured positions? Faculty from other institutions are starting to ask if I am happy where I am. My optimism and “make it work” attitude is waning and Twitter’s daily wave of new tenure track postings is alluring. Today’s post is dedicated to figuring out what could come next. Unfortunately, n= me and maybe you too.

Stay in the department: The easiest solution is to, of course, stay in the department. No department or institution is perfect and it is better to know the limitations of a place than have to rediscover them all over again. The goal should be to write the papers, get the grants, and do the science. My funding is secure and grants are pending review. If the environment does not improve, perhaps I can contemplate a move when I am more competitive. Another consideration is that some of these feelings are normal and likely coincide with the end of the “new job honeymoon” phase that some of my colleagues have warned me about. Objectively speaking, our lab is beautiful, we have everything we need, and the resources of the institution are considerable.

Change departments: Another option that I can explore is changing departments. This may allow me to keep my start-up and equipment, provide me more protections through teaching, and keep the valuable connections I have made. Whether basic science departments will be interested in this departmental refugee, how much space I would be given, if I can take all my equipment, and whether this will be workable in the long term is unknown. Moreover, some of the institutional issues with which I struggle will not be resolved by changing departments. This has also resulted in a bit of an existential crisis: I have always been in clinical departments. How am I going to adjust to life in a basic science department? Am I ready to make it even harder to collaborate with our clinicians? How do I make this change without alienating my current department?

Change institutions: Another option is to change institutions. I still have a couple years on the R00, and grants that are pending review. Do I make discrete inquiries or go all in and start applying to job postings? The siren call of other institutions with smaller salary coverage, greater access to clinicians, and stability certainly are tempting. But can they really be immune to today’s dismal funding climate? And where would I apply? Am I ready to give up on clinical departments? The major downside to all of this, is the total disruption of my laboratory. We have spent so much time setting up, getting our breeding colony to size, optimizing protocols, and the thought of all that effort and money wasted makes me ill. I have also made commitments to employees and trainees. Will they move with me? Can they? Leaving our beautiful space and lightly used equipment is also depressing. Of course, all of these events are occurring on a backdrop of life. Can we survive another year on the job market? While we are still fairly portable as a unit, do I really want to move us again? At what point do we get to finally settle down? Has life in science transformed us into nomads? Will I ever be able to just do the science?

If you are wrestling with a similar choice, be it changing mentors in graduate school, moving to a different postdoctoral fellowship lab, or changing institutions, know that these changes are more common than you think. Also, these decisions are never easy. I have been trying to work through this impossible arithmetic for months and all I can do is recommend reading Simone’s Maxims. For those of you on the job market this fall, good luck! I might be joining you. Stay tuned for more tales!

 

Advice and thoughts welcome. Feel free to send some electrons my way in the comments, via Twitter @PipetteProtag, or through traditional electronic mail pipette.protagonist@gmail.com

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6 Comments

That is a hard decision but you outline the pros and cons nicely. I think this is an issue many women and POCs face because it is difficult to know how friendly a department will be until you get there. Then, if the department turns out to be a bad environment, you either have to suffer through or change jobs again (which as you outline, is not a good idea). It would be interesting to hear what you decide in the end. Best of luck!

Thank you! As with most things, red flags at any point during the interview process should tip off applicants that the department or institution might not be a good fit. Alas, not everyone has another option to choose and sometimes it is very difficult to tell what is really going on in the department or institution. Moreover, things change. In my situation, it was a combination of important information being omitted and my pride, as I believed that I could help fix the issues. Regardless, here I am and now I will share the journey with you all.

Dr Liz, PhD says:

As a PhD who was ousted from a clinical department (see my “Denied” blogs in this newsletter), I felt kinship when I read your note about the possibility of switching from a clinical to a basic science department. I also found myself thinking back to job interviews I had or had passed on over the years before termination. A few suggestions I’d like to add to your list:
> Try to be objective. Write down the known plusses and minuses, and also add some gut instincts about your situation. Then return to that list another day and imagine that it is someone else’s list. What advice or insights would you share with your friend/colleague about their job situation?
> Have you received any grant reviews since joining your current institution? Look carefully at their feedback on your institutional support. Then consider the real institutional resources that you personally have and need to be successful, and also consider the reputation of the institution. How does it compare with the institutions that are advertising?
You will be more marketable after you receive a grant, but you may also be more invested in your institution then.
Last comment… any colleague working with you now who respects your work and likes working with you will certainly continue to work with you if/when you change departments or change institutions. And sometimes that cross-department or cross-institution connection can be a benefit to you and a benefit to your grant submissions.
Good luck, Pipette!  Dr Liz

Thanks Dr. Liz! When I first read your blog, I wondered if you had been in a clinical department. There have been a couple basic scientists in clinical departments in my field who have not received tenure, and it has definitely given me pause. It can be hard to satisfy the P&T committee requirements when all you focus on is research! I appreciate the additional consideration points you included. In particular, I like the idea of making a list and examining it objectively by pretending it is someone else’s list. Thanks for the advice and support!

I am facing a simialr issue. As an MD on a K08 doing basic science research in a predominantly clinical field, there has been a increase in our clinical hours which is probably above the average compared to peer places and along with my other non-research obligations makes me concerned I will be able to carry out my research without sacrificing family and personal time which I have no desire to do (been there and done that). They are justifying the increased clinical time by changing what constitutes effort so technically would still be 75% I have inquired about job opps at a couple of other places who sound interested.
 
My biggest concern is how NIH would view this? I am only looking at places that would have the proper support and mentor in place. Not sure if anyone has experience with this? I guess it seems easier with an R since your more or less indep but being on a K award, I think makes it tougher. 

This is definitely a conversation to have with your PO. I would focus on what your current position is missing (perhaps best phrased as a “supportive environment” for basic research) and have a conversation about moving the K award if you found a more supportive environment.

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