Is panic on the TT a good thing?

Aug 25 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers], Etc

I am catching up a little here in bloggy land and came across a post by Gerty-Z about anxiety in her first couple 'o months running her own show. Odyssey followed it up with a good response from the perspective of someone with both familiarity with the situation and enough distance to have perspective.

What caught my attention, however, was the comment by GMP (can't seem to link to comments over there at LabSpaces) that says:

What I am trying to say is -- panic away! Panic is good - it means you are on the right track; embrace it. You know what they say: if you're not scared, it means you are not paying attention!

On the surface, I can see where this makes some sense in a tongue-in-cheek kinda way, but I don't think I buy into the idea. Panic, to me, has an element of out-of-control to it. It is fine to do once in a while when things get overwhelming, but if you're in a state on panic most of the time, or even a good amount of the time, then you're likely fucked.

Have there been times in the last two years when I have internally freaked out. Hell yeah. Have there been times when I thought "what the fuck am I doing here?" Yes. We all go through this kind of stuff because, as I keep saying, this job is totally different than the training for this job. Even a good postdoc mentor can't adequately prep you for the reality of everything you have to juggle as the leader of a lab with a novel research focus / teacher of undergrads / new person who is eligible and naive enough for the departmental service no one else wants to do / lab equipment orderer / manager of people / accountant / money getter / navigator of an unfamiliar political landscape / etc x 3.8 fucking bazillion.

The reality of all this will cause anxiety. Managing the lab finances and personnel cost, alone, is enough to keep one up at night. Trust me. You're now immediately responsible for others. This ain't a solo ship anymore.

BUT, panic isn't going to help anything. It is allowed on occasion and in the presence of senior people to give you advice, but as CPP has eloquently put in the context of frustration in the lab, but I think the same goes for panic:

The moment that your trainees begin to think that you are not calm and confident in your expertise and in your ability to make your lab a success, they will lose trust in you as a mentor. And once they lose trust in you, you are completely fucked.

Trainees are like dogs: they can smell fear. If you are afraid of failure, and your trainees smell your fear, you are fucked.

So, while it is normal the freak out once in a while and healthy to be thinking a few moves ahead, with about 4 back-up plans, when the panic comes it is important to take a step back and try and come up with a plan to attack the most important things first. When you have the keys to your own lab, you're a leader by default and no one is going to follow someone in panic.

With only 2 months under her belt, I'm sure that Gerty-Z is overwhelmed and feeling like she can't keep her head above water. I know I did. But remember that everyone hits that stage (often more than once), the key is being able to reign yourself in and use the motivation to something productive. If writing isn't working, try something else, but don't allow yourself to just flail about. Things like mentorships, collaborations, students, etc., will fall into place if you just keep yourself moving forward.

At least, that's how I've survived two years so far.

12 responses so far

  • JaneB says:

    Yes, I agree totally - and when the big picture is overwhelming, the 'panic is normal' people are inclined to do nothing but the best strategy is just to 'look at your feet' - do little things that need doing and that represent progress until the panic abates!

  • Kate says:

    I agree too. Yesterday in class I cracked one too many jokes about not getting tenure. I could tell the last joke was too much, and I saw that I lost my audience a little bit. They want to see us as human, certainly, but not so self-effacing -- or in such a state of panic -- that they can't trust us to lead them. I'm still kicking myself for the joke today.

  • GMP says:

    Well, my comment (entire thing) to Gerty-Z was also meant to cheer her up, which I think it did. I am certainly not advocating running around in the state of panic like a maniac -- duh.

    I generally hate it when people tell me to "Calm down." That's the most useless comment ever and extremely patronizing. When people are upset, there is usually a reason, so upset is a legitimate reaction.

    When someone is panicked, they should not feel bad that they are panicked.
    Panic is a normal reaction to a mountain of unforeseen or up-till-then ignored difficulties. , to something drastic. Panic is a transient feeling and serves to alert up of problems, and will abate on its own even without the panicker panicking about the panic not going down stat.

    Bouts of panic on tenure track are normal. They are part of learning a new job, and a highly competitive one at that. Even after tenure track, people have bouts of panic. My most recent one was that I was going to run out of money (I will, end 2012; of course, I am writing more grants and will likely be fine). Also, tenured people panic about getting scooped and their work becoming meaningless (at least people do if they are doing anything worth scooping).

    Bouts of panic are a normal thing in any competitive endeavor.
    Whether you turn to putty in front of your students is another thing. I do not necessarily endorse "must be in control at all times, or group will fall apart."
    I actually think senior students and postdocs should be allowed to see the human side of PI's: that we panic to, that there are many uncertainties in this business, but that it is normal, you pick yourself up, and business goes on as usual. Pretending we're superhuman -- no fears or doubts ever -- just makes our trainees feel inadequate once they become independent.

  • chall says:

    I tend to think about "panic" as I think about the "crunch time". both things might work in a short time, with a specific thing to master. i.e. just before submitting a grant there might be a bit of panic feeling... but as you said, I usually get "out of control, flailing papers about in a non-orderely fashion" when it comes to panic feelings.

    That said, any of these feelings/modes are only working for a shorter time, after a few months or so, most people feel fatigue, drained and not efficient at all. Enter rest time and recooperating mode.

    As for the whole "one joke too many" - yes, I recognize the thin line between "telling students we're only human" and undermining the idea that we are really good....

  • Yoshimi says:

    Couldn't agree more. As with Kate, I slip up sometimes but I work hard to come across as confident and think I generally do well day-to-day, both in the lab and with other faculty (I haven't started teaching yet). I've also become very adept at redirecting my internal feelings of panic (which express themselves as middle-of-the-night, sleep-depriving bouts of generalized anxiety about lab) to focusing on short-term priorities for the next paper or next grant. The combination of reminding myself I have a plan in place and re-thinking a manageable portion of all I need to accomplish usually restores my confidence quickly. And the renewed focus helps me walk into lab the next day conveying excitement and new ideas. Much better for the students than panic! The one place where I fear I betray my lack of confidence is in public speaking. I'm working very hard at it and am getting better, but I also know there's a price to be paid for not already being where I need to be. Which, of course, keeps me up at night...

  • proflikesubstance says:

    GMP, I think it's pretty obvious that you weren't referring to full blown panic attacks, and neither was I. I probably used the term as loosely as you did, and that wasn't the point. I simply meant that the key to dealing with these freak outs is finding the best short-term goal to focus on and using it to motivate, rather than debilitate.

    But thanks for suggesting I was being patronizing. Coming from you, that totally made my day!

  • GMP says:

    But thanks for suggesting I was being patronizing. Coming from you, that totally made my day!

    Wow. Thank you for that. So happy this is totally not personal.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Just keepin it real. Don't hate the playa....

  • GMP says:

    Just keepin it real.

    That's fine, as long as you keep in mind that it takes one to know one.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Aww, GMP, with a comment like that you risk revealing your IRL identity.

  • […] In the meantime, head on over to PLS's place and check out his thoughts on why it's perfectly normal for new TT faculty to have anxieties. […]

Leave a Reply