At the helm

In  a recent post by babyattachmode, PLS commented:

I think part of it is switching one’s mindset from “trees” to “forest”. As you find yourself thinking more broadly and even getting away from the bench in favor of writing papers and grants, it forces you to think more broadly. From that perspective, ideas come more easily.

To which I replied:

For me, this has definitely been the hardest step to take. I thought I was on the right track as a postdoc with my nice little research summary, but I wasn’t sure if I could pull it all off (hence the imposter syndrome). Then I walked into an empty lab and had all these ideas but couldn’t figure out what the hell to do first (imposter syndrome heightened). Really quickly, I found my brain running off in 20 directions at once, which was completely overwhelming (imposter syndrome took over). I’m just now starting to calm down a very little bit, think more broadly about the research, and figure out what ideas fit, and which ones need to go away. Lots of thinking, lots of reading, lots of writing, lots of talking to colleagues.

This really has been the hardest part of the postdoc-to-PI transition for me. I knew how to do science, and I spent a lot of time as a postdoc imagining what kind of science I would do in my own lab. By the time I showed up in TTT, I had lots of plans. LOTS of plans. Suddenly I had my hands on a shiny new lab, money to buy stuff, and people to do stuff, and I realized just how much I could do. And I wanted to do it all.

Not only did I want to do it all, I thought I needed to do it all. I thought I had to figure out what my entire research program was going to look like before the first pipetman began its work. I had planned and planned and planned and planned, and I was still planning. I planned myself a million little experiments, and forgot to ask “how does any of this fit into the big picture?” I stopped prioritizing experiments, and focused all my attention on planning the lab I’ll be lucky to have in 5 years.

It’s not that a five year outlook is a bad thing (contrary, I think it’s incredibly important), it’s just not where I need to have all of my energy focused right now. Besides, planning out 5 years worth of experiments is not the same as having a 5-year plan. You can have a general direction you know you want to go in. You can even have a few specific wild crazy hairs on your wish list for future experiments for when things get stale, or when you see a great funding opportunity. But you can’t predict the future, and you can’t do everything at once. I needed to set priorities, and I needed to know what the important question was in order to set those priorities.

Just a few weeks ago, when my head was about to spin off, I got the most freeing advice ever: “First, take a deep breath. Next, decide on a very concise set of experiments that you can publish quickly and get your name out there. Then go from there.” Seriously, this may have been the best advice ever. I spent a few days in my office, pacing back and forth, thinking about my project, looking at the data I had, drawing on my dry-erase board. I re-read my K grant and determined what needed to be done with that money. I figured out what needed to be done to get those last bits of postdoc data published. And I came up with a very concise plan for the first experiments that would be done in my lab.

I’ve now parsed out these experiments among my lab personnel, taking into account each individual’s experience level and interests. I’m training them individually on the different assays they need to know, spending more time with some, less time with others, but reminding all of them from time to time of the bigger picture. Slowly but surely, each person is starting to take some level of ownership of their project. I’m giving them hints of where I think the research can go, but also letting them start to build their own ideas about their projects.

Me? I’m trying to stay at the helm, teaching, thinking, fundraising, waiting, and having a blast.

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2 thoughts on “At the helm

  1. Beginnings are never easy. Looking into an empty lab makes it worse. For me, it was easy to ‘forget’ that I actually laid out a plan in my K grant, because I went through some of the same motions. I had a list of things that I wanted to get done, but then had to take a step back to make sure these experiments would actually contribute to a bigger picture. Rinse and repeat…..

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