Saying No

I just played my first “no” card as a tenure-track prof, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. The particular request was for something that may have had some actual benefit to me, AND it may have even been enjoyable. Hell, I really wanted to say yes to this request!

But it was also a last minute request, and I have a ton of deadlines looming, out-of-town visitors knocking on my door, and a date to pick up my son tonight at daycare. After considering the request for a couple of minutes, talking to Hubby about trading off daycare pick-up nights, I decided it was just too much. I had to say no.

And now, well, I feel a little bad about it. I worry this was an amazing opportunity that I just passed up. And I worry that I let someone down. Truth be told, neither of these concerns is probably founded. But I don’t know if that’s true, and I hate the idea of the unknown. I’m working on getting over it, which involves reminding myself that this would have been a very irresponsible “yes”.

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.

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.

At a snail’s pace

Last week I hit rock bottom. This week is much better. I spent a nice weekend with Hubby and Monkey (who I’ll have to share some stories about soon – he’s driving us absolutely nuts, but only because he’s inherited both of our unruly, stubborn streaks). We took some deep breaths and enjoyed a weekend of minimal activity, just enough to keep Monkey entertained.

I spent some time last night reading papers on my iPad and looking over the applications from a couple of very promising technician candidates. This morning, I walked into my lab and reminded myself of how far I’ve come in just a couple of months. It’s not a bustling center of scientific discovery – yet – but it’s almost functional, just in time for hiring some lab peeps.

I’ve gotten a couple of grants and a manuscript submitted. I’ve met most of the administrative staff and identified the people who “get shit done”. I’ve interacted with several awesome female scientists, and have started building my local network. I’ve even started talking to a couple of colleagues about potential collaborations. This summer, I’ll be attending a couple of international meetings, promoting myself and my new lab.

Slowly, very slowly, everything is starting to come together. As I ponder taking responsibility for the livelihood of others in my lab, I’m feeling more pressure to succeed than I ever have before. I really don’t know how the hell I ended up here, but I’ve got to admit, it’s pretty fucking cool.

Now that I’m “in it”, I can also see how hard this will be with a kiddo, and how difficult the decision to procreate further, while on the tenure track, will be. I have the option of tenure-clock stoppage, a seemingly supportive department with lots of involved parents (dads and moms), and the financial support I need to get shit done. But I haven’t been able to do squat in the lab without personnel – too many other items end up at the top of the to-do list, and I’m out of time for lab shenanigans by the time I have to pick Monkey up from daycare. If it weren’t for my technician funds, I’d be up shit creek. Networking is obs incredibly important, but every meeting I attend is time away from Monkey, every lunch with a colleague time away from grant-writing. Money is critical, but each grant is more time away from family. I have a supportive husband and the freedom to do just about anything I need to be successful in my career. Still, decisions will have to be made, and I’m curious to see where my decisions will get me.

One thing is for sure – I do NOT want to wake up five years from now and not recognize my son, or find out it’s too late to have a second kiddo. If that means I don’t get tenure, so be it. I’m hopeful, however, that I can find the right combination of networking, writing, lab, and family time to end up happy AND tenured. Pipe dream???? We’ll see, but I’m not nearly as optimistic as I used to be. That’s perhaps the biggest change between now and a few short months ago – a lab, money, responsibility, and a heaping portion of realism.