Why starting your own lab is like having a baby

Hubby and I had no idea what the hell we were getting into when we had a baby. No. Fucking. Clue. To our credit, we knew it wouldn’t be easy, and we knew it would change our lives. But the impact of sleepless nights that go on and on? The depression? The feeling that you think you may have made a really, serious mistake? No way were we prepared for that, and I don’t think there’s anything anybody could have said that would have sunk in.

Dr. Becca has a post up about her first semester of teaching on the tenure track. I haven’t myself had to teach yet, but nonetheless, I totally got it when I read this:

Here is the thing about being new faculty–the thing that you know in an abstract way, and that you want, but don’t necessarily process until you’re actually in it: everything, all the time, is all up to you. There will be a lot of things you simply can’t delegate, because in the beginning, you are the only one who knows…well, pretty much anything. And in addition to all those things that you planned on having to do, a million little fires pop up Every. Single. Day. And you have to deal with those too, because again, this is your show.

Of course Dr. Becca and I both knew this, in theory at least, but neither of us – and I suspect nobody else – really knows how hard this whole junior-faculty-starting-your-own-lab thing will actually be. And, in more than a few ways, it’s felt (to me) like having a baby. Before the lab baby showed up, all I could think about was this sweet awesome thing that I’d immediately love and shepherd into maturity. Of course I knew it would be hard. I knew I’d make mistakes, and I knew it would be a big change from my carefree postdoc days. Right up to the day when I brought our little Monkey home and looked at him sleeping in his carseat in our condo, I was nothing but googly-eyed. And right up to the day that I walked into my empty lab, I was brimming with excited optimism.

And then that lab baby started crying, and I suddenly found myself responsible for the biggest, hardest thing I had ever done in my entire life. All those awesome dreams of my wonderful new life as a PI evaporated as real life landed on my overwhelmed ass. I couldn’t get equipment to function correctly. Or I couldn’t get a specific type of equipment ordered due to some red tape nightmare. Or hiring lab personnel became a bureaucratic nightmare that seemed insurmountable. I seem to make a gazillion mistakes a day, costing others time and patience. I am CONSTANTLY wondering if I’m cut out for this shit, or if I just wasted the time of my new department and chair, my postdoc and grad mentors, and my family, whose sweet butts just got dragged across the country in service to my dream.

The past couple of months of new professorhood have brought me back to those first couple of months of new motherhood a year and a half ago, when I thought I was in way over my head, to say the least. What I’m starting to figure out is, that while I’m not always happy doing this job, I still love it. The verbal diarrhea that gets spewed on my blog is only revealing the negative; believe me – there are plenty of positives. Just watching my lab come together is excitement enough. Add on top some of the interactions I’ve had with new colleagues, the beginning stages of collaborations, and the actual hiring of people to work on the science I’ve been thinking about for so long – it really seems to be worth it.


3 thoughts on “Why starting your own lab is like having a baby

  1. On the first day that I entered my office, there was a lovely box of pens, pads, sticky notes, etc..no bottle of lithium. I’m pretty sure they forgot the bottle of lithium. Because that’s how you feel in the beginning: a bit bipolar. The highs and lows seem extreme and unrelenting…Worth it? YES!! A thousand times YES!!

  2. Baby was definitely harder, and I’m sure with greater reward. But the parallels are helping me get through this difficult phase.

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