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Advice for the new grad student
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I am starting my lab as an Assistant Professor at a Big Research University (summer 2010). I have a super partner and an adorable kiddo, Mini-G. I tend to rush into things and then figure them out as I muddle along. I'm sure that will be true here, too. I hope to use this space to maintain my sanity and share my perspectives on science and academia. These perspectives may sometimes qualify as rants. There will undoubtedly be some crazy times on the tenure track. Gmail me [at] primaryinvestigator

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Comment by microbiologist xx in Wimminz in Academia Answers!!

I've been busy and am just now getting around to reading all of these entries. Very nice. . . .Read More
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Sunday, August 22, 2010

OK, I'm freaking out about tenure. I've convinced myself I will never get it. I have no idea what I am doing. Yes, I realize that only last week I was full of advice for grad students. But this tenure thing is a whole new beast (for me). I'm TWO MONTHS in to my TT job, and I feel like I'm already behind the tenure clock. I guess this is sort of like a "reverse advice" post. In other words, I am going to list some of the major anxiety-producing thoughts that I have going on right now. Any advice is welcome.

The Gerty-Z list of tenure clueless-ness-es*
1. I am sitting here, writing a grant and paper. It is not going well. If I can't even do this, how am I not screwed? I feel like I'm not a very good writer in the best of times. These are NOT the best of times.

2. In a desperate fit of procrastination, I have been reading drdrA's most excellent advice about the tenure track and Odyssey's repost about how many papers you need to get tenure. These seem like great nuggets of useful advice. But I just feel more like I have no idea what is going on. Why are tenure requirements so fucking vague????

3. How do I know if I am talking to my Chair enough? or too much?

4. I'm still trying to figure out how you actually meet people in this place. How does a nOOb Asst. Prof get "advocates" that are senior faculty in other departments? Am I supposed to just start stopping by and sticking my head into people's offices? I assume that other people are busy, and I don't even know what I would say. I don't want to piss anyone off or make them think I am stupid! How do I meet other Jr. faculty? There are none in my dept. I assume there must be others in different departments, but how would I know?

5. I have a rotation student starting in a month!?!?! What the fuck am I supposed to do about that? I barely remember my rotations. Postdoc PI had a way of just throwing people into the lab without a project or even pairing them up with anyone-this never seemed to work all that well. But I have no idea what students expect for a rotation. I really don't want to start off on a bad foot with the students.

6. Am I spending my money too fast? or too slow??

7. Am I doing too little benchwork? or should I be doing MORE benchwork?

8. How do I "pick mentors"? I think that I am supposed to have an official mentoring committee, but I have no idea how to get folks to be on it. This is more terrifying than picking a grad committee by like a million-fold. At least then I had someone (my PI) that helped me choose people who would be looking out for me. What if I step in a steaming pile of department politics inadvertently?

9. I don't know how to collaborate. I really like talking about science with people, and collaborating sounds like lots of fun. But I have never been involved in collaborations. Almost all of my pubs are 2-person affairs. Neither my grad school or postdoc PIs were very collaborative. Should I be collaborating with people? I assume so - but how does that work?

10. There are no other jr. faculty in my dept. The last person (and the ONLY person in the last 7 years) that went up for tenure was a fucking rock-star. There is no way in hell that I will not look shitty by comparison.

I am SO FUCKED. *sigh*

*I understand that isn't a word. But I'm freaking out here, so lay off!

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I'll write a longer reply tomorrow. But the main thing to remember is it's only been two months.

Dr Becca, Ph.D.
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First, what Odyssey said.

Second, it sounds like a lot of your fears (picking mentors, collaborators, meeting other faculty) have a general theme, which could broadly be defined as Making Friends. It is totally scary to go somewhere brand new where you don't know anyone and are feeling rather clueless (I'll be going through this soon too, whenever I find a new lab), but I imagine once the school year starts you'll have lots of opportunities to shmooze it up. Does your department have regular seminars with cookies? My grad school did and it was a very fun social thing. Will you be teaching this semester? Maybe you could offer to give guest lectures for one of the intro/survey courses, which would help you meet some of the other faculty. If your department is as small as it sounds, I'm sure everyone is very excited to meet the awesome new gal who's going to breathe some fresh air into the place!

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Dude, fuck, chill!

1. practice and ask for help from people who have been funded for a while. Grantsmanship takes a while to learn.

2. Talk to the Dean

3. Too much is never enough. If you're worried back-off...then ask later.

4. Journal club, seminars, grand rounds etc. It is hard though. I've spoken to a few junior faculty over the years and both men and women have found it tough depending on their environment. take some time to just walk around and say 'hi'.

5. Seriously. Chill. WTF?

6. ask someone, try our own beloved Odyssey, PiT & PlS at Scientopia if you need junior TT adivice. We blog for a reason right? Network...CPP and DrugMonkey also give solid advice, as does Dr. Isis...

7. Seriously. Chill. WTF?

8. Seriously. Chill. WTF? Time've only beenn there 2 freaking'll know them when you find them (I know that's hopelessly vague...)

9. Seriously. Chill. WTF?

10. Seriously. Chill. WTF? they're not judging you against that person. They're judging you against you. The world was a VERY different place 7 years ago.

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Thank you, Tideliar. I sense that you had a central theme...

Dr. O
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Thanks for the post G-Z, and Odyssey for the reply...both very useful. I can only imagine what a mess I'll be when I (hopefully) walk in your shoes. I think my head will be spinning off it's axis. ;-)

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@Gerty-Z: My collaborator and a very successful late-career scientist (National Academy member and all that jazz) says that only the paranoid people are ever truly successful. The constant state of panic that you will run of money and/or be scooped and/or stop being relevant is the fuel behind success. I tend to agree -- I have never met a mellow/relaxed early-to-mid career faculty who's successful (although Odyssey sounds pretty calm; I wonder what's his poison?). Maybe it's a bit field-specific...

What I am trying to say is -- panic away! Panic is good - it means you are on the right track; embrace it. You know what they say: if you're not scared, it means you are not paying attention!

But truth is, collaborations will come on their own, your group will slowly grow and develop its identity, you will submit many grants and even more papers... Expect the 1st year to be a bit slower in terms of publication rate, but by end of year 2 you should be hitting a stride...

Ah, fun times... Enjoy!

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Dr. O: I have no doubt that you will have your shit together more than me.:-P (though I doubt that I could have done anything different and avoided this little episode. *ahem*)

GMP: thanks for the silver lining. I'm guessing from what little I know of both of you that my field is closer to his than yours. I suspect it is a person-specific effect rather than field-specific.

Or else Odyssey has the good shit and hasn't shared it yet. hee hee ;-)

biochem belle
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Obviously I have no specific advice to provide, but over dinner last night with a couple of bloggy friends, the subject of doubt and anxiety came up. I suppose it falls in the category of "imposter syndrome", and it affects people at all levels from the lowly undergrad to the esteemed professor. We came to a couple of conclusions:

- There's a massive amount of anxiety in science peeps.

- A little bit of anxiety is a good thing because it provides the signal to prepare for the future. The challenge is to keep the anxiety from being overwhelming.

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I have never met a mellow/relaxed early-to-mid career faculty who's successful (although Odyssey sounds pretty calm; I wonder what's his poison?).

Who said I'm not panicking? I am. Constantly. Being able to somewhat rationally address G-Z's list just means I have I the occasional rational moment...

Or else Odyssey has the good shit and hasn't shared it yet.

The good shit? That's easy. In no particular order:

1) Don't waste time drinking bad coffee (I recommend Peets - Illy is better, but not within my budget), bad beer (Budweiser/Coors/Millers products don't even count as beer), cheap bourbon (try Woodford Reserve), or wine that comes in boxes. Even the good stuff is cheaper than therapy.

2) Remember that's there's a whole world outside of academia/science. Some of it is really worth experiencing.

3) Family first. Always.

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I just finished my first year and have no advice on getting rid of the sense of panic (mine comes and goes seemingly out of my control), but had some thoughts on a couple of your concerns:

4. Your sense of isolation should get better with the school year starting. I was invited to numerous events for new faculty. Some were more useful than others, but through these I met a core group of junior faculty from different departments that I connected with. If for no other reason, I'd recommend attending these events initially.

6. The best advice I got on spending was to avoid anticipatory equipment purchases. Buy what you need now and buy the rest when you need it. That allows you to maximize the money you have to spend on people.

8. Can you wait a little while on this? I found that it didn't take too many faculty meetings to get a sense of the people and dynamics in the department beyond the science.

9. As a new faculty member you'll probably receive a number of invitations to speak in department seminars around campus. These are great opportunities to meet other faculty who may turn out to be future collaborators, informal mentors or even good friends.

Best of luck! Glad you're blogging!

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Yoshimi, thanks for stopping by and the insight from someone who has mde it through the first year. Odyssey, I can not agree more with your list. LOVE IT! Also I love Peets coffee. I can tell that you have wisdom beyond your years. Thanks!

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2) Remember that's there's a whole world outside of academia/science. Some of it is really worth experiencing.

3) Family first. Always

I think I just developed a little crush on Odyssey...
Isis the Scientist

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Are there people you know through your societies that are working in complementary fields?

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A sixpence occurs to me, and I need to write about this...

..I've been out of my postdoc for almost two years so why aren't I writing about the panic and fear, the imposter syndrome?

I need to dig some of my old blog posts out (yay, I found my 'deleted blog').

I've been out of my postdoc for 18 months. I'm not TT or non-TT, but I still need to survive as a scientist. I might not face metrics and department chairs... but grants & funding, publish or perish, how much time do I spend on X or Y or Z...

Part of me wants the TT, partley because I'm trained for it, and partly because I would love to know that as long as I have 2 R01s and 3 pubs/yr I'll be OK.

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"A sixpence"?! really? really?

I'm sure you are much too badass for "imposter syndrome" or whatever. There surely is some amount of personality bias. Don't worry, I've got you covered :-P

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Odyssey and Proflike have great responses in my view. Hard to add to those. But about #7 I have a bit of a soapbox issue. Get away from the bench. The model of all day at the bench, writing at night, doesn't work very well.

One of the scariest things about being a new lab head is trusting other people to do some work, do it well, not waste time/money too badly and yes, not fake data. It is also a very hard realization that you are where you are for a reason and the stats suggest that most of your trainees are not going to be as good as *you* were as a postdoc. The key is to be able to work with the capabilities of the individuals you have managed to recruit to generate a data stream that will lead to preliminary data at the least. preferably to pubs.

If there is one thing I know for sure that I actually got *right* about my early career/launch it was this. Getting a publishable datastream going that did not require me to be hands-on in the lab. The next closest thing that I *think* I got right was concentrating on getting the grants

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Chill out. I am 1.5 years in to my TT position, and on occasion I have a freak out. it passes. 2 months in is no fucking time at all. I had nothing setup and I was waiting for approval to work. The fact that I had anything done within 4 months had my chair happy as a pig in shit.

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Your link doesn't work...

Prodigal Academic
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I am freaking out too G-Z. It is scary to be responsible for my students, and now I am adding more! My startup is almost gone! Yikes!

As for some of your panics, I agree with the advice given by much more sage folks like Odyssey and GMP. I suck at making friends (I am an anti-social introvert), but yet once the school year started, I had lots of good interactions with colleagues. As the new blood, people tracked me down to ask me to guest lecture in their classes and fill holes in the seminar schedule. It is also a good idea to email people outside your department who do stuff that interests you and invite them out for coffee.

Try to train your lab peeps so you don't have to be in the lab. You won't have time for benchwork later, so don't get used to you bringing in data. Your peeps will be way slower than you at first, but they will learn! They won't want to show you bad data, so make sure you do walk-throughs and ask them how things are going.


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I just finished my first year, and am always stressed about whether I know what I'm doing. Occasionally I'm in full-blown panic mode. I don't know that this will ever end. It sometimes uncomfortable but My head has not exploded yet, so take heart.

Mentors, collaborators, friends take time. Two months is nothing. Don't worry about students. They have no idea what they are doing let alone what you are doing...

Someone once told me the first few years on the tenure track was like starting a new sport. You will have muscles ache that you never knew you had. This is the reason things seem overwhelming now, and will feel less overwhelming in time. Over time the things that are difficult now will even become Effortless. Because you will train those muscles. In fact you are probably training them right now... ;-)

Hang in there

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DON'T PANIC!! It's bad for you (o matter what GMP says). I cannot focus or work if I'm stressed out. Just keep trying to do your best and things will resolve themselves. They do get better, gradually and without you noticing. I agree with DM - get good people in your lab that can start generating data and the rest falls into place. And if you feel you are taking on more than you can chew, then scale back.

And, yes, your family comes first.

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*Sigh.* Sometimes (often?) I wonder why I bother commenting on people's blogs at all...

When I am panicked/upset and someone tells me not to panic/be upset, that advice does not calm me down, just makes me want to punch the person -- the advice is royally patronizing.

The point is: instead of trying to fight the panic (which will come again in bouts throughout the career) as though it is something evil and unnatural, learn that it is a normal part of the highly competitive job that is academia. Panic is transient by defition and can be a useful wake-up call/reminder.

More here.

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GMP, I think that I took your comment in the spirit it was offered. I think maybe part of the issue that folks are having is that "panic attacks" can be very debilitating. But I think you and I are referring to "freaking out". Maybe this is the source of the misunderstanding?

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Yeah, GMP, don't swaet it.

Sometimes people enjoy taking the internets too seriously. OMG did you see what she SAID! OMGOMGOMGOMGOMG!~!!

I bet 95% of readers knew exactly what you meant. I did, and that's all that matters anyway.

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When I first started my position, I made a practice of making an appt to have coffee or lunch with a colleague once a week. This is not a lot of time to spend away from your lab and I have met and gotten to know many friends, mentors and collaborators this way. You can certainly target people that you think may be good mentors (but would like to get to know a bit more first) - most people are happy to join you for coffee to chat about their research or give their perspective on grants, paper submissions, how to get X technique done at your institution, etc. Also, if you happen to bump into junior faculty in other depts, ask them for lunch. Maybe you won't end up great friends, but you'd be surprised how this informal networking can pay off in the long run. It's also a nice social break to look forward to every week.

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That is great advice, BugDoc! I need to do this and not get so caught up in my own little grant whirlwind.
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