Not that Kind of Spending: Tales of Investing in Your Career
As a trainee, I was a big believer in principal investigators (PIs) paying for all things related to the science, from poster printing to conference travel to lab outings. Luckily for me, my mentors shared my views on their responsibilities to trainees, and my science-based costs were reimbursed without question. There were, however, costs that I paid for out-of-pocket and continue to pay as a PI. By and large, these types of costs fall into the category of “career development.” These are some of the investments that I have made up until now, as a graduate student, postdoc and PI. As always these days, n=me.
The obvious investments: There are certain investments that are fairly obvious and not necessarily specific to careers in science.
Business casual attire for interviews, presentations, and meetings: These outfits do not have to be expensive, but they should fit well and be comfortable enough for a day of wearing. To guarantee their longevity, invest in attire that is more of a closet staple than this year’s hottest trend. Here are some tips.
A reasonable computer: Purchase a computer on which you can process data, write manuscripts, and engage the scientific community from the comfort of your couch. Invest a little money in acquiring some software, like Office and a reference manager. Most institutions have licenses for at-home software use at a discount. Having your own computer, which is not tied to grants or your institution, also gives you more freedom in using said computer. For example, if you own a side business or serve as a consultant, you want those records on your personal machine.
Data back-up: Be smart and back-up your home and work computer, either by external drive or cloud. Data storage has become less and less expensive, so spending some money on a cloud back-up service or a large back-up drive is well worth the investment. You will thank yourself when you successfully locate the protocol you used in graduate school, the colony management sheet from your postdoc lab, or have the only surviving back-up of your data following cataclysmic computer failure in one of your old labs.
The less obvious investments: There are other investments that are less obvious, but could make a big difference in both your sanity and career.
Social activities: Not all social activities you undertake at your institution or at conferences will be reimbursable (for example, networking happy hours). Take the financial loss and meet some new people, go to a nice restaurant with some senior colleagues, and enjoy the opportunity to talk science with new people who are normally inaccessible to you. PIs, this includes things like taking your lab out for celebratory lunches, birthday cakes, and team building events. Be the hero and help your people out.
Business cards: Faculty, this should go without saying. You need business cards. You will be passing these out like Halloween candy in your first year to new colleagues, potential students, program officers, vendors, and pretty much anyone who will take one. For the trainees, these are also a worthy investment. Some graduate school and postdoc programs provide business cards for free. If you institution does not provide these, the most basic versions cost roughly $10 for 500 cards. These are a great, small investment in your career as they provide your personal information quickly and point a potential collaborator, future mentor, or employer to your work and personal website.
Personal and/or lab website: If you are a new faculty member, consider setting up a secondary lab website, independent of your institution, specifically for your lab, paid for with your own money. Personal websites are much easier to maintain and can include more information than your institutional page. Moreover, should you change institutions, you will still have your website. Tips for making a great website can be found here and my thoughts, here. If you are a trainee, setting up your own website can highlight your accomplishments and is particularly important if you are considering non-PI careers. Moreover, this will move with you throughout your career and will provide a space for your writing samples, medical illustrations, technical skills, and curriculum vitae.
Membership dues: In graduate school, I joined a society relevant to my research interests, and have paid the dues out-of-pocket yearly. Membership dues are usually smaller for trainees than faculty. Being a long-time member of a society provides built-in networking and opportunities to serve the society throughout your career. Moreover, senior members with whom you serve and interact are likely reviewing your papers, grants, and conference abstracts. Think of that $50 membership fee as an investment in your future in a specific field.
Career development workshops: One of the biggest investments I made as a postdoc was attending a career development workshop. There was no money in the lab budget to send me to the workshop, so I used the airline miles I had collected over the years through personal and business travel to buy the airline ticket. I paid the registration fee, which included lodging, out of pocket, and attended one of the best and most transformative workshops I have ever attended. Am I suggesting you pay for conferences and workshops out of pocket all the time? Absolutely not. This was simply a workshop that I could not skip, and I made a careful decision to spend the money and invest in my career.
How to decide what to invest in: For me, this has always been a sliding scale: the higher the cost, the more value must come from the investment. Spending $10 on business cards that I might never use seems reasonable. Paying $2,000 out-of-pocket to attend the giant Terrible Disease conference where I am not giving a podium presentation seems outrageous. These investments are also likely to change throughout your career. As a postdoc, I did not travel enough to warrant TSA Pre or lounge access. These days, I travel most months, and TSA Pre has been well worth the investment.
I hope that I have convinced you that there are certain out-of-pocket investments you should consider, regardless of your career stage. In my next blog post, I will cover some of the strategies I am employing in deciding where to invest my time. Stay tuned for more tales!
Did I miss an important point? Do you have questions or concerns about the post? Or perhaps an anecdote to contribute! Feel free to send some electrons my way in the comments, via Twitter @PipetteProtag, or through traditional electronic mail firstname.lastname@example.org
I think all of this is good advice – science, like all human endeavors, is a social activity first, and a rational one second. You need to make sure you have a good relationship with your peers, and that they know you and your work. That said, I’ve made full professor and gotten lots of R01s without owning a suit jacket or a set of business cards, learning how to tweet, or putting together a lab website. Might be because I’m old. For me, the most important parts are a good home computer and buying lots of beer for your colleagues.