What I've done wrong

Aug 07 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

PiT has a good post about what to do as a junior faculty member once you get the keys to your lab, which I think it spot on. I won't belabor the points she brings up there because you can read it for ourself. Instead, I'll take this opportunity after 2 years on the job to reflect on what I screwed up.

Think of this as my "What I would tell two-years-ago-me if I had a time machine*" post.

The first thing I got wrong was deciding to strike out on my own and start an entirely new research program with little carry over from my previous work. Don't get me wrong, I really like the directions we have gone in the past two years, but this decision has killed me for funding. Coming from another country into the US system, I greatly misjudged the amount of "preliminary" data required for the proposals I was writing. It was my fault for not taking more time to understand the system, but I wasted a lot of time in the first year writing grant proposals that had no hope of getting funded, simply because I didn't have the data to back them up. If I had taken a ready-made project from my postdoc I could have used that to get things going while working up the other facets of the program.

Another consequence of this is a publication gap. I've had a few pubs out since starting this job, but nothing substantial that I can point to and say "look at all the cool shit I am doing!" This is not a good thing. It's not a killer, but I could have planned better.

The second thing I got wrong was not burning my start-up with a flame thrower. I have certainly blown through a ton of cash since starting, but for someone who didn't have enough preliminary data and has cash in hand, I didn't act fast enough. Eventually this message got into my head, but I should have been more focused on cranking out data on a large scale right off the bat than I was.

All in all,  I think these two points probably set my proposal getting back a year (hopefully not more...), and had I done more on either front I could have saved myself a lot of aggravation, but live and learn. So, if you are starting a new position right now I would strongly encourage you to think about the data you need to make a good proposal and spend whatever it takes as soon as possible to get those data in hand.

*Other than, ya know, the lottery number that week.

10 responses so far

  • Yeah, I brought data and samples with me from my postdoc and that still hasn't been enough to get even a single penny of extramural funding. And, despite everyone urging me to do so, I know I didn't get started as quickly with the lab stuff as I should have and that's definitely biting me in the ass now. Life and learn. Roll on the third year!

  • gnuma says:

    Hrmmm...would you (or anyone) be willing to divulge how much preliminary data you think are necessary? I've been told it can range from virtually nonexistent for a beginning PI to the entire experiment needs to be done. I've also been told if the question is not exciting then it doesn't matter how much preliminary data you have...I'm starting to think there is no way to judge what grant panels want to see, and what strategy is 'just right.'
    And I'm sure it varies from NSF to USDA to NIH....
    My strategy so far is to start 3 lines of research (2 are inexpensive in terms of materials) and develop rough timelines for each, when papers should come out, etc. Now I"m trying to figure out exactly what pieces of this work should go into grants.
    Also, I could take a portion of my post-doc work and run with it, but doing so requires a very developed skill set, the kind only a post-doc would have....and I don't have post-doc money. It is what it is...

  • Thanks for the tips! I am presently working on my first major grant proposals. I could do some follow-up studies from my postdoc as well. However, I am kind of stuck at the moment because I don't have access to all the equipment needed to specifically work on my area of expertise. I got the TT faculty position partly because I am the only one working on the issues I am interested in but the downside is that even with my start-up fund, it is not enough to have a lab with a decent amount of equipment. On the positive side, I just got funded from a small (some would say minor!) agency as a PI. Great news! So, I am ready to start working on a first (very) small study...but again, not until I have the remaining devices...Sigh...Welcome to the real world :-)

  • anon says:

    I had to get 2 publications and a huge amount of "preliminary" data (the project was nearly finished) before I got funded. By then, it was unfortunately too late. My dept chair kicked me out and now I'm in a situation where I'm transferring to another institution (to a non-tt position). When I started, I also had a publication gap because the work I was doing was different from my post-doc. For me, it wasn't a choice - I was expected to do something different from the post-doc advisor.

    It's too bad the funding agencies aren't open to new people starting new projects. There is this NIH "new innovator" award, but with only 14 or so awards being made each year, it is not feasible to rely on this. All new R01's should be this way, and not just a select few. The current system is not sustainable; it seems money is wasted on people doing the same old shit and nothing new.

  • Tex says:

    I was once old that you should try to have different types of projects. One that is in effect incremental, such that you should be able to publish papers quite quickly to establish your independence and to fill the publication lull. One that addresses an important topic in your field, requires the accumulation of preliminary data but does not necessarily have to solve a major problem, but something that should be fundable by a major agency and would establish you as a significant investigator. The final project should be something that addresses a major question in your field, that has the potential to establish you among the top few in your field, but will take several years to complete.

    The three projects can be independent of one another, or they can be closely related. What I would avoid though, is trying to be too ambitious too soon. What I mean by this is avoid trying to start too many different types of projects too soon in your career. One mistake that I have seen, and am probably guilty of, is trying to have the same type of research program as my former mentors too quickly - they have built this up over a number of years.

    My 2 cents.

  • Candid Engineer says:

    Things like this just generally terrify me.

  • Odyssey says:

    I started TT with a project I'd brought from my postdoc. After a series of "go away and never come back" reviews of proposals submitted based on that project I had to abandon it.* Fortunately I had started a new, unrelated project as a backup that did get funded. And got me through tenure. And evolved into my major research focus.

    So bringing an existing project can be a good thing, but not always.

    * In hindsight the reviews weren't too far off the mark.

  • tideliar says:

    And things like this are why I didn't fight for a TT place but walked away when a decent opportunity presented itself.

    You have to be able to look yourself in the eye and with perfect honesty and confidence say, "I am good enough to be in the top 10-15% and get funding". When i couldn't do that anymore I knew I was setting myself up for something that in all likelihood I would fail at.

  • Hermitage says:

    I can see myself in the future having an epic psychological battle where I KNOW I need to burn start-up money but my inner stingy pants is like NOOOOOOOOOO, KILL IT WITH FIRE!

    *deep commentary complete*

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Everyone's situation is different, so there's no point being scared about what may or may not happen down the road. I am lucky in that I am not in a situation (yet) where my department is freaking out about me not having a grant yet. At the same time, the cash clock is ticking and at some point the lab will run out of it unless I get some funding in the door. It is what it is.

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