Year 15 as a PI. Spoiler, It’s a Still a Challenge
A hop, skip and a jump away Pipette Protagonist is dishing on what it’s like to be a Year 1 PI. Turns out it’s tough, but Pipette makes pointed recommendations and observations worthy of your time (loving the ‘your employees and trainees can not be your friends’ statement!). I’d like to throw in some thoughts on what it’s like to be looking at the next third of your career.
The Good News:
- Side Hustles Pay Off: I’ve always had side hustles doing ‘friend and fundraising,’ blogging or clinical research even though I’m a basic scientist. In the last five years, those things have started actually paying larger parts of my salary and are increasingly appreciated as important to the scientific community. Protip: Start having conversations early and often with administrators and other movers and shakers locally and nationally about funding your efforts in these areas if you feel you have talents that aren’t being captured by grant funding. Think of societies, programs and philanthropic organizations that can support 10% of your salary for two years to try out these skills that complement your science and advocacy.
- You Get Pretty Good at Finding the Collaborations You Need: Early on, I tried to be all things to all people. I wrote grants with folks because senior colleagues I respected ‘voluntold’ me to (this is the opposite of ‘volunteering’ for those who haven’t learned the term yet). Maybe I knew a technique they wanted to use or had experience in an intersecting field. With time, it gets much easier to identify when I need to write an enthusiastic Letter of Support and when I need to write an aim. Protip: Err on the side of Letter of Support.
- Writing Gets Easier: One of the benefits of writing parts of grants I didn’t want to do is that I’ve also gotten far better at knowing what’s a rut vs what is a motivation problem. Ruts happen WAY more often than I would have ever predicted but the good news is the plethora of business, organization and motivation books and blogs out there that can help you stay sharp is astounding.
- Philanthropy is Stepping Up for Science: Funding for NIH and NSF are stagnant but in my experience, donors are eager and excited to talk to scientists and clinicians who are passionate about what they do. In the last five years, some of the most impressive names in business have invested in science in earnest. Bill Gates just threw in a couple hundred million to fight Alzheimer’s, Paul Allen has been a long time supporter of neuroscience and Google is serious about aging research. Protip: Update your websites, invite clinicians and community members for a ‘lunch and learn’ in your lab, print up your business cards, and shadow your clinical colleagues to get savvy on the medical realities of patients who have disorders you study in lab. I have full confidence that STEM research funded by celebrities and business moguls will continue to fuel research in significant ways and fill gaps in our science economy. And yes, I will happily get my Bill Gates neck tattoo like the rest of you will if he funds my lab (call me, Bill!)
- STEM is Getting Better for Women: This may simply be a matter of my perception, but 20 years ago, during my training harassment was rampant (mostly in the form of older guys who be very alone without their power getting female trainees drunk so they could be handsy and vile). I picked female advisors to avoid this, as did many of my female classmates. This is the first year in my career when I am actually confident women won’t have to tolerate this as the norm in our not too distant future. It’s come at an unrecoverable cost to many of us, and there are more horror stories to come, but for as angry as it makes me, I’m also optimistic.
- Your Science Posse Matters: I’m a huge fan establishing a ‘cheer and spear squad.’ Losing graduate school classmates to industry, business and other endeavors was utterly bewildering to me (Pipette talks about his as well). I was sure I would have no one who would understand my academic life. I was wrong. Opportunities to meet and develop a personal posse in STEM have never been more abundant. Take advantage of them but look for ones that aren’t filled with folks who mindlessly cheer you. You want folks who will feel badly when you struggle but also ask you the tough questions about your part in your current circumstances. Your cheer and spear squads will save your sanity and, quite possibly, your careers.
- Having Older Kids Isn’t Any Easier Than Having Younger Kids: Sorry, friends. You will go from sleep deprived to sanity deprived as your toddlers move to teenagers. Protip: Drive your old car longer and invest in help shuffling kiddos around to the many orthodontist, music, yoga, and kale chip-making classes your kids can’t live without. Also, upgrade from drinking wine to gin. It’s cheaper and more delicious.
- Not Everyone is Going to Get a Spectacular Retention Package: Were you counting on updating your techniques and toys with an influx of cash when you get tenure? Yeah. About that….
- Picking Up Programs is HARD: With experience comes opportunity. And when that involves picking up a program that isn’t yours, it can seem like a windfall, but buyer beware. With a couple of years of funding left, you barely will have time to introduce yourself to the folks on your training grant, program grant or whatever before you need to write a renewal. Free advice: Before grabbing up that program directorship, ask for administrative support, salary support for you or a tech in your lab to pick up your slack while you are doing your new duties.
- NIH and Administration Remain Obsequious and It Damages Science: I had hoped that massive uptick in science blogging, reporting and networking would cascade into administration and funding agencies being more transparent in their motives and needs. I was wrong. There is still much back alley conversation that happens far above everyone’s paygrade. We’re scientists. Let’s study and improve our systems of reward, review, teaching and training as we are meant to – in an open learning environment with all stakeholders having a voice. Maybe that will be the next 15 years?
Got somewhere between 1 and 15 years of experience and want to drop some wisdom in the comments? I’d love to hear it!! Also, links to kitten gifs and promo codes for boot sales greatly appreciated.