I'm sorry, I can't do that

Jan 03 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

If there's one thing that has been clear with this round of grants, it's that when I need some data to slot into a section, I've got to walk down the hall and ask the right people in the lab to rustle up the data I need. Gone are the days when I could seemlessly alternate between Word and the bench, laying the groundwork for the proposal as I wrote the sections. I knew this point would eventually arrive, I just didn't expect it to get here so quickly.

Part of me is thinks this is not a great development. I mean, I could get most of this stuff done, but it would take hours of time invested that I just can't commit in the same way that the people in my lab can, so I don't. At the same time, I'm happy that I have trainees who have pushed the limits of what we do to the point where they have gone outside my comfort zone and continued to plow ahead. I've asked them to do things that I can't directly train them in, but pointed them in the right direction, and off they have gone. This is a good thing.

It does feel a bit strange to have to depend so heavily on others so that I can craft a compelling proposal, but taking the big picture approach is the only way I see to thrive. I know some PIs spend all sorts of time at the bench (to which everyone always ooohs and ahhs when it comes up) or insist on being able to perform all of the work going on in their lab, but I just don't see that as a viable strategy for me. My best place seems to be directing the course of the work by discussing strategy and troubleshooting and I'm slowly getting more comfortable with that.

11 responses so far

  • csb says:

    how long did it take you to get to this point? (is it bad that i'm getting close after 6 months? .. well, when the next grant deadline passes, i guess i'll be back in business at the bench ...)

  • proflikesubstance says:

    It didn't take that long before I was rarely at the bench, but it took a bit before I had trainees doing a lot of things I can't walk into the lab and do without having to sit down and learn a lot of shit.

  • Jen says:

    I've experienced both extremes with my advisors. My grad mentor was ALWAYS in the lab, at the bench, banging out data for his next paper. He would work at the bench until about a month before a grant due-date, then lock himself in his office until the grant was done, emerging only briefly to ask someone in the lab about a particular experiment, or to do a quick assay himself. My postdoc mentor, on the other hand, no longer does bench work (except for a small side project). I think the big-picture approach (as you aptly put it) works quite well for him, except when it comes time to write a grant, and he needs that data. I don't think he remembers how long particular experiments take to perform in our system, and he has a bad habit of asking someone in the lab to drop everything and crank out the experiment on ridiculously short notice (in one case, four days before the grant was due). He had a particularly talented grad student who seemed to bear the brunt of his requests, until she finally erupted in frustration. I think he is now more mindful of the timing of his requests because of that, but it is something I worry about for myself - I can easily picture a situation where I only realize the need for specific data late in the writing process. Hopefully, I would have thought through everything ahead of time, but I know it doesn't always work this way. You just have to do the best you can do.

  • GMP says:

    I think this is very typical (forgoing the nitty-gritty details of day-to-day research and focusing on managing, the big picture, lots of writing and editing, and fund raising). I am a theorist/computational scientits, and I held on to the illusion I can continue to do the computations myself well into my 3rd year on TT (e.g. I had single author papers until that time). But as your group grows, and your appetites for what can be done grow, and you start seeing all these awesome directions opening up... And you realize that you are much more useful to everyone by teaching, directing, managing than by doing one teeny-tiny bit of any given project, and that the whole enterprise is much more efficient if you devote your energy to advancing the big ideas . I still do some calculations on the side for some of my pet projects, when the students get hopelessly stuck, or when something needs to be done really fast, but it's a small portion of my time. There are projects where the students have gone beyond my immediate expertise, but that's where having the big picture outlook and the intuition that comes with it are very valuable (i.e. even if I haven't done a particular calculation myself, I have done related or similar ones, or different ones but on similar systems, and can therefore tell when the data is BS and can usually pinpoint why).

    I don't know a single experimentalist PI in my field who still performs experiments him/herself. Labs are considered the domain of students, postdocs, and research scientists. Of course, the PI is always invaluable in the design of experiement, data analysis, and interpretation.

  • leigh says:

    so long as you don't lose sight of how long it takes to do some of the experiments (as someone else has mentioned) i think this is a good position to have.

    in my grad lab, it was mutually understood that PI was to be kept way the hell away from experiments. (we got the occasional "ooh pretty, what's that?" but that was it.) it was good that way, though. PI actually did a great job of continuing to expand the lab's repertoire by requiring each of us to go out and learn a new technique from some expert, and bring it back to apply to our own work. it meant we spent some time explaining the concept of some of my experiments to PI, that's all. it made for better leadership at the helm, which i am now trying to emulate myself... good then, good later.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Yes, I realize that the big picture approach that both GMP and Leigh describe is the direction I have to go in and I don't have any problem with that. CPP often brings this up as well. It is just odd to be experiencing the notion of being dependent on others for data for the first time. I can certainly evaluate the data and I have a major hand in the direction and thought process that pushes the research forward, but I'm synthesizing now, rather than creating. It's just different.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I took specific steps to avoid the frustration part. Maybe I'll make that a post.

  • I am going through the same experience, PLS. I find that even though I always had to trust and depend on others working on my projects at National Lab, it feels really different now that I am no longer producing data myself.

  • Same for me ! The funny thing is that we are studying hard and for a long time to do research, and as soon as we have reached that goal, we don't have enough time to be in the lab anymore !! Sigh...

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Physician Scientist says:

    This is exactly what I'm going through (4+ years into being a PI). Its very difficult though to depend on others for the actual data (esp when its your butt on the line).

  • Proflike –
    I could not wait to get to the point you are at! Had I felt confident that a few more years at the bench would have earned me the papers I needed to be truly competitive, I would have persisted. I totally understand that doing time at the bench is an essential part of training for anyone aspiring to be a group leader, but too many people get stuck at the postdoc level. Truth is I never like bench work or data generation. I enjoy proposing experiments and analysing data, but I hate actually doing all that pesky experiments.

    The best PIs I know are hands off, they allow their postdocs and grad students to become the technical experts. Some even recruit postdocs who can bring new skills to the lab. Newer PIs seem to have a hard time letting go, but a good leader does not try to do everything or be best at everything.

    I often suspect that theses very hand-on PIs would be happier remaining as postdocs!

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