What to expect in the first year

Feb 18 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

Obviously, there has been some discussion around these parts about becoming new TT faculty and how prepared people actually are. With that in mind, I thought I would provide a Top Ten list of things that I wasn't as prepared for as I thought I was when I arrived in my job.

10. Walking into an empty room and knowing you have to turn it into a functioning lab in relatively short order is a bit overwhelming. In a lot of ways, it is a fun challenge, but remembering EVERYTHING takes some serious work. It helps if you walk around your postdoc lab and list everything you see, right down to the tube racks and brushed in t he sink. Ordering things will consume you for the first couple of months.

9. Balancing finishing up postdoc projects with launching a new research program can be difficult. It's easy to drop your past and concentrate on the new stuff, but getting those last few pubs out the door helps mask the productivity gap of setting up a new lab. Also, doing this sooner than later means you will have to spend less time searching through old files trying to remember things that were fresh 6 months earlier.

8. Meetings take more of your time than you can imagine. Even from the very early stages it is worth picking a day or two during the week and removing them from your schedule so that nothing breaks up that day or days. It doesn't seem like it right away, but after a few months you'll be asking yourself "why I can't I get anything done during the week?" and the answer will be because you don't have any blocks of time longer than two hours. I know the idea of it seems ridiculous, but it happens.

7. Trainees are enormous time-sinks in the first 6 months. You may or may not have grad students or a technician starting in your first year, but whenever they do show up it is surprising how much of your time becomes dedicated to making sure they do things you want them done and keeping them on the right track. This gets better as more people join the lab, but one needs to be careful of the game of "lab technique telephone" which can occur if you have trainees teaching trainees.

6. Politics. Some places will be worse than others, but figuring out where people stand and being sucked into numerous discussions on how your university runs is also a massive time suck in the beginning. Steer clear of as much of this as possible, but you can't dodge everything unless you start wearing a Teflon suit to work. Then people might give you a wide berth.

5. Everyone wants a piece of you. While you still have that new faculty smell, everyone wants their pound of flesh. You'll be asked to give seminars in the relevant departments or nearby universities and maybe even some guest lectures in classes. You'll be asked to attend different events by administrators so they can show off their new hire and the university will try and "orientation" the shit out of you with events and training sessions. Other faculty will want to blab on for days about "how things are here", etc, etc.

4. Nothing in research works in a new lab. At least, this has been my experience. Everything will be slightly different than the environments where you learned the techniques. The machines will be different (even if they are the same models), the water will be different, the tilt of the Earth, whatever. It takes time to trouble shoot everything in the new digs and the routine protocols you once performed will have to be tweaked.

3. Where once you had one or two grants to apply to per year, now you're chasing the world. As a postdoc there are a couple of grants that one can directly apply for. Maybe your PI asked you to help with other grants as well. As a new PI with your own ideas to fund and in need of money, you'll start applying for far more than you thought. I sent in 7 grant applications in my first year. That's a lot of writing, a lot of adjustments and a lot of rejections only to start over again. You don't carry that kind of load as a postdoc.

2. Making a name for yourself takes a lot of exposure. As a new PI, it's important to get the word out quickly that you've started your own show and you're moving forward with new ideas. In addition to letting people at your university know who you are, you need to do the same at the international level. Publications from you new lab are not going to come out for at least a year or two, so you have to get out to meetings and work the conferences. You have to network for yourself now, so start booking flights.

1. You're the boss. You now control your fate in a way you previously have not. Your ideas are under the bright light, your writing has to fund the lab, your personnel decisions will make or break you and your blood, sweat and tears will determine everything in the next 5-7 years. You'll have some support, but ultimately it all comes down to you. Your trainees depend on your success as much as you on theirs and their jobs and careers are in your hands. Somehow this reality didn't really sink in for a bit, despite postdocing with a pre-tenure prof who was very open about the ups and downs of things and I'm not sure it can be fully realized until you're in the position. One can be aware of it, but living it is different.

I'm sure others will weigh in with things I've left off the list, and this is in no way comprehensive, but all of it combines to make for a pretty crazy transition from being a trainee in a lab to calling the shots. It's easy to look over this list and think, yup, I know all that. The problem is that it's the cumulative effect (not necessarily additive, btw) that makes being pushed into the deep end so jarring.

13 responses so far

  • Ms.PhD says:

    Great post.

  • Dr. O says:

    Agreed - thanks!!

  • Anonymous says:

    Good list, but don't forget teaching, not every one gets the first year or first semester off from teaching - this is a huge time sink as youa. Put your materials togetherb. Deal with studentsc. Deal with TA'sd. Grading jailThere are probably others.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Anon, "huge" is an understatement. Especially if it's your first time.

  • Kate says:

    Great list, and I would second Anon's comment about teaching. We have a 2-2 load and no teaching release in our first year in my department.

  • Genomic Repairman says:

    Great post PLS, I help setup a bare lab as an undergrad and even I had my "oh shit" moment staring at the bare walls knowing I had to help set this place up. And boy did I ever, I had to run Cat5 through the ceiling for computers and set up every piece of equipment in the lab as my PI, who was new went on maternity leave six months into starting her job. But the experience of setting up the lab was well worth it.

  • Anonymous says:

    Wow, PLS! I am on the market for a TT position, and reading you post, I have started feeling overwhelmed already. Maybe a post or two about the zen tips that help tide over first couple of years?

  • Arlenna says:

    Yes, yes and triple yes. If I was going to write this top ten list it would be pretty much the exact same. I would notch it up to 11 and add the teaching bullet: lecture prep and class-related student interactions take up an f'ing ridiculous amount of time. The lecture prep has a point, but 99% of the class-related student interactions are totally f'ing pointless. "Umm, I was just wondering what chapters are on the test?" "Ummm, I was wondering if you could just REPEAT EVERYTHING YOU LECTURED ABOUT at office hours this week? (even though the lecture is recorded and I could JUST F'ING WATCH IT AGAIN!!!???)"

  • Professor in Training says:

    Yep - you pretty much nailed everything on the list. The only thing I would add is that you suddenly become a small business owner with a budget that gets smaller and smaller each day and trying to juggle "you must spend money to make money" with "oh, shit, we've only got enough cash to last for 6 more months." It makes me wake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. Oh, and waiting for weeks for IT to get off their sorry asses to set up your computers so that your lab peeps can get on with their research. Grrrr.

  • Anonymous says:

    In addition to 5), remember that you can actually say "No" a lot with less repercussion than you might think. It took me a few years to figure that one out and now I tell all incoming young people -- just say no!Otherwise you get torn in too many directions, have too much time wasted with all sorts of nonsense and get involved in things that are important for the department and/or the Uni but not for your tenure case.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    My zen tips would include hobbies and taking at least one weekend day to spend with your family, no matter what is going on. I didn't include teaching on the list, but obviously that is an enormous time suck. All I can say is negotiate hard for some early release, but it may not be possible in all positions. PiT, I agree. There's a tightrope to walk and not much safety net. Anon@11:24, This can be easier said than done as a new member of a faculty. It is possible to say "no" to a number of things, but one has to be careful not to gain an early reputation of not playing well with others. Like everything else, it's a balance.

  • Venkat says:

    Thanks for the great post.@Arlenna: When I was a TA as a grad student, I always wondered how the profs put up with silly questions from students like the ones you mention (i.e., not actual subject related). I'm not sure if some new profs bend over backwards to not point out how lazy/stupid the student is, simply with a view to getting a good students' evaluation.

  • JaneDoh says:

    Nice post! I had no idea how much time class management takes, especially for the large lectures. Just filing all the paperwork, recording grades, and figuring out course policies take forever that first year.@Venkat: I am a professional--no matter how annoying some students are, I don't treat them with disrespect. I find the easiest solution is to put answers to the lazy questions that get asked all the time on the syllabus and refer students there.

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