Overheard at Ground Level: Fresh Brewed Mentoring
Vanderbilt’s Edge for Scholars hosts weekly Zoom office hours, called Ground Level, with senior mentors and leadership. Discussions range from advice for grant writing and publishing, study design, tenure/promotion, managing a lab, and more. We collected pearls from these discussions.
Hosts for Ground Level cross the basic-translational-clinical-population spectrum and, and while their science is unique, most of their insights are applicable to everyone.
- Be open to a leadership position – an administrative role does not have to be all paperwork and people managing drudgery – it could be an opportunity to affect huge systemic changes.
- And, when it’s time, consider moving up and out so your spot can be available for new voices and new people – this is called crop rotation.
- Trust your gut – in order to guard yourself against the very human tendency to get overwhelmed by anxiety, trust your hard-won strength, knowledge, and instincts. Your inner voice is saying, “you got this.” Listen.
Hiring and Management
- A kanban board (sometimes known as a kaizen board) can work wonders for managing a lab. One PI uses the board to show every team members’ priorities for the week, metrics related to those priorities, and which other team members folks need help from. (This particularly helps the PI to see who they need to meet with in a given week.) The board gives the team clarity on how they fit together.
- When interviewing a potential hire, don’t just ask what’s on their CV. Ask them to describe a problem they had to solve on a team, or ask about their role at a previous position: What did they create or contribute that they liked the most?
- Just because you do a pilot study, you don’t have to publish it.
- When doing a randomized controlled trial, especially one where data will be years in the making, publish a study design paper before your outcomes paper. This also avoids the problem of a single paper on design and outcomes being too long for most journals.
- When receiving reviews of a paper or grant, read them, put them away for 2-3 days to let your emotions settle, then go back and re-read.
- By the time you’re on faculty, you should be the corresponding author, not your mentor.
- When responding to reviewers, highlight discrepancies between their reviews without picking a side.
- You’re ready to publish on a topic/problem/experiment(s) when you have 4-5 figures.
- Take advantage of the Early Career Reviewer program and other opportunities to get on study sections before you land big grants. See how the sausage is made.
- When collaborating with someone at another institution (or even your own, if in another lab), use the collaboration as both a training opportunity for mentees and a way to get Rigor, Reproducibility, and Transparency points in your next grant. Send folks from your lab to the other (or vice versa) to learn how to do a technique or experiment. Have the visitor repeat one of the experiments your collaboration has been responsible for, displaying that yes, the methods you wrote can be followed and results can be reproduced. Write this into your grant.
- In grant applications, use only one figure per page.
- In an aim, don’t just test, but measure. Your first sentence is that you will determine or measure how A influences B; you’ll quantify or assess. In the second sentence, state that you will test the working hypothesis that [insert specifics here]. This way, even if you’re wrong, you still have data from this aim.
- Always try to pull language from NIH websites to prop up your impact (how does what you’re doing work toward their goals?).
- Keep a best practices list with your team so you don’t reinvent the wheel. For a new problem or project, you can enter your “pantry of possibilities” and gather ingredients to cook the recipe for the solution.
- You can do everything! Just not at the same time.
- For physician-scientists, especially those on Ks: Rather than doing clinic a half day per week, be in clinic all day twice a month. A half day of clinic often consumes the whole day anyway, so this reduces that day to twice a month rather than every week.
- Develop a strategy to say no – it’s too easy to get wrapped up in collaborations, committees, and requests for service. If the return on investment is slim, graciously decline. Consider weaponizing your mentor (with their permission) by saying, “I’m sorry but I don’t have the bandwidth right now because my PI is keeping me busy!” Also, consider passing this opportunity along to another colleague who might benefit more or be a better fit.
- Have strict control over your calendar – carve out and build strong barriers around blocks of time for mentoring, reading, writing, researching, family, etc. Create a set list for the week. Create a rhythm for the week and stick to it.
- If someone senior or important asks you, in passing, how you are, saying “busy” or “tired” can be a missed opportunity to tell your story.
- You have 7-14 seconds to tell your story.
- Finding your passion = what do you do on your best days.
- Introduce yourself to NIH officials at national meetings. Before the meeting, contact your PO, see if he or she will be there, and ask for fifteen minutes face to face. Or have your PO recommend other POs or PIs working in similar areas you could meet with.
- Ask your administrative officer who is the best budgeter in your department and meet with that person to learn their wisdom.
- Capital equipment: Purchase what your lab needs on a daily or very regular basis, but otherwise look to share equipment or use cores.
- To gain access to expensive equipment owned by other PIs, offer to contribute to the annual service fee.
- At the early career stage, your capital is not money. It’s the ability to give co-authorships to others with resources or skills who help you.
- When negotiating your own job offer, ask for the goal you want to reach rather than specific items or salary. For example, “I want to be the go-to person for X. To do that, I think I’ll need access to devices a, b, and c. How can we make this happen? I can envision either owning these devices, sharing ownership with someone else, or being able to have time on them via a core.”
- Explaining biomarkers by analogy:
- The fuel gauge on your dashboard is a biomarker.
- The fuel gauge + how many miles to the gallon your car gets + how many gallons of gas you have left is a prognostic biomarker.
- The fuel gauge measurement + how many miles to the gallon your car gets + how many gallons of gas you have left + the current headwind + current traffic + other relevant variables is a predictive biomarker.