Not that Kind of Year: Tales of Year 1 as a New PI
It has been about a year since I started my new position as a principal investigator (PI) at Clinical Department in R1 University. It has been a challenge. Here are my suggestions on surviving the first year, based on areas where I succeed and failed. As always these days, n=me.
Find your people: The shock of loneliness in the first year is significant. You no longer have a built-in community of graduate students and postdocs with which to spend time. Your employees and your trainees cannot be your friends. You are their employer and/or mentor, and while this leaves abundant room for kindness, compassion, and well-wishes, the power differential is prohibitive for true friendship with your staff and trainees. The easiest way to deal with this loneliness is to find your community. Potential communities include other new PIs in your department, your institution, or your professional society. There are even peer-to-peer mentoring groups, like New PI Slack, which provide access to a community of new PIs who have gone, are going, or will go through similar trials and tribulations. However you decide to do it, make sure you find a community to support you and that you can support in turn.
Find balance with life: This has been a point of failure for me. I let the work take over this year. Do better than I did. Make sure you leave dedicated time for your hobbies, friends, and family. The administrative work will be there Monday morning too.
Find balance with collaborations: Find a balance in starting collaborations and be protective of your time. As a new PI you have a pot of unallocated money that you can invest in projects of interest. Established PIs know this as well, and you can find yourself paying for their pilot projects out of your start-up. As with all things, you need to carefully weigh whether this pilot study will translate into a grant or if it is a one-off experiment that will collect dust. You also do not want to work in a silo. It can be difficult to get that first senior author paper or grant, and by working with more seasoned investigators, you can build your publication record and grant support. My suggestion would be to find one or two PIs with whom you would be happy to collaborate and build those relationships. I have recently become very protective of my time and accepted that just because someone wants to work on my Terrible Disease of Interest, does not mean they have to work on it with me. I have instead cultivated two collaborations at my institution which have resulted in two grant submissions that were largely driven by my collaborators.
Find mentors: Even though you are a faculty member now, you still need mentors, and particularly mentors at your institution. While your mentors can provide scientific input, their roles are now focused on objectively evaluating your progress towards tenure. Some departments have this mentoring requirement formally established—others do not. Either way, establish a mentoring committee and make your semi-annual meetings a priority. It is much better to hear from your mentoring committee that you are not on track to achieve tenure versus hearing it from the Promotion and Tenure (P&T) committee after formal review. I meet with my committee every six months, and we discuss everything from funding to manuscripts to teaching and service.
Build good relationships with university officials: Get to know the people who make lab life possible. This includes individuals like the departmental administrator who reviews your grants before they are submitted to the Office of Research, individuals in the Finance Office, the Director of Facilities who provides building access and mediates installing big equipment, and the head of Procurement who signs off on big orders. In some departments, you might be able to delegate this to an administrative assistant or administrator. My approach has been to do it myself. It takes half the time and the next time I need something, like building access for an undergraduate student, I can take care of it quickly.
Write things down and get organized: This is the time to develop on-boarding documents for new hires, update lab protocols to reflect current equipment, generate lists of laboratory reagents (including how to order them), and develop lab policies (code of conduct, travel policy, etc.). Identify a way to have staff and trainees access and update documents through Google Drive or Box. Developing these resources and documents is quite a bit of work, but it lays the groundwork for the lab to grow and remain organized. One of the things that I did not do was develop written expectations for staff and trainees. This has resulted in some unpleasant back and forth with an undergrad about what my expectations were for them. It would have benefited us both to have a signed document for them to reference. Developing this document is currently on my priority list.
Practice saying no: You do not have to do all the things in your first year. Focus on getting the lab established and everything in place. Service on committees can surely wait until year 2 or 3. You do not have to work with everyone, you do not have to apply for every single grant mechanism available to you, and you surely do not have to agree to give every seminar or attend every conference in your field the first year. My department and institution have been reasonable in their expectations, but I did find myself saying yes to a lot of national conferences and seminars this year. While this is an excellent issue to have, my absence from the lab for such extended periods of time slowed research progress and impeded training. This, in turn, has delayed some of our grant submissions. Whether the national exposure versus manuscript/grant submission progress was a wise choice remains to be seen. On a personal note, all the travel did not contribute to work-life balance.
Celebrate the little things: We would all like to celebrate the big things, like papers in press or big grants awarded. While these are worthy goals for your first year, they can be difficult to achieve. Celebrate the little things, like the first experiment, the first figure for a paper, or the first lab poster. This has helped keep me motivated and lab members excited about progress while we work towards the big ticket items.
With these thoughts in mind, I go into the new year and into year 2. The upcoming year will be a busy one, with R01 submissions, dreams of two papers submitted, some teaching about Terrible Disease, and a couple new conferences to attend. 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