Repost: What to expect in the first year

Mar 22 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

The new crop of TT faculty are just now starting to accept positions for the fall. With that, I thought it would be a good idea to repost some advice to those new people that originally went up on Feb 18 of last year.

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.

15 responses so far

  • saban_lab says:

    Nice post...

  • Dr Becca says:

    Thanks so much for re-posting! This applies to me now, yay!

  • New Asst. Prof. says:

    Ditto, PLS - thanks for the reminder :-)!

  • odyssey says:

    Yay indeed!

  • BugDoc says:

    Terrific advice! Re item #10, it's even more helpful if your postdoc lab has an ordering database, or a way that ordering information can be exported into a database. Even if you have a list of all the items you needs, trying to figure out the best tube or cheapest widget and their catalog numbers can be incredibly time consuming. At least if you know the catalog # of the items from your old lab, you can order some to get started and then do comparison shopping when you have the time.

  • hydropsyche says:

    I'd love to see a similar list for starting a job at a primarily teaching-oriented school. Has anyone done one in the science blogosphere? The paperwork is signed, and it certainly feels like there are things I should be doing, or at least lists I should be making.

  • GMP says:

    Take a vacation before you start in the fall. A big fat serious vacation. Go see old friends and extended family. Camp in the woods or something similarly calming. Seriously. I had less than a week between graduating with a PhD and starting my tenure track position at a large R1. You can burn out really fast. The first year is a TON of stress (I think I gained ~ 20 pounds that year) so try to come in with as much energy and in the best of health you possibly can.

  • Dr 29 says:

    As a (hopefully soon-to-be) new staff, and even as a postdoc and grad students many of these things (albeit, on a very, very different scale) were applicable. From meeting with the PI the first day or two, to being handed out incredible amounts of papers, to meeting with collaborators, and on top of that getting all the shite taken care off (from finding out where the heck to park, to getting a start on the health plan, to finding out who's missing what paperwork and what stuff I need to send to every person in the Chair's office and more) ... it's a ton of stuff to take care of. Thanks for posting, though not all of them apply to me, it still gives me an idea of what to look forward to and remember during my first few days (and weeks) at whatever new place I end up at.

  • B says:

    Find time to ear right, exercise, stay married (if you are), play with your kid(s) (if you have them), read a book, read a blog, watch the Daily Show, watch a movie once in a while, go for a hike, travel get the point.

    At the end of the day, it is just a job and NO, your life does not depend on it. Sure you have to work hard, but you are not on a mission to save earth ( a la Willis in Armageddon).

  • B says:

    I meant eat right 🙂

  • Ayesha says:

    Great Post!

  • Postdoc says:

    Really great post!! Thanks!

  • You missed a couple of items:

    11. The second year is much, much harder the first.

    12. The third year will kill you.

  • newprof says:

    (8) and (5) is so freaking appropriate that its scary! I am
    still trying to balance the 100s of meetings and commitments and
    find some time when I can stay in my office (or home or anywhere
    really) and do some freaking work!

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