Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Holidays and Vacations as a PI

Because of the recent winter holidays, I noticed lots of professors talking about work-life balance both on Twitter and in real life.  Everyone has their own personal way of establishing this balance, but I am intensely annoyed by the ultra-famous professors who Tweet that we should be spending our time with family during the holidays rather than doing any work.  I have to wonder if these people got to where they are by taking lots of time off, and my guess is that they did not.  I think my problem with these Tweets is that rather than just saying that they're happy to be taking time off for the holidays, they're implying that there's something wrong if we're not.  So with that said, and realizing that hearing about other people's philosophies on vacations may not be that helpful, below is what/how I think about taking time off...

1.  As a PI of a lab with NIH funding, you have to work hard.  You are competing against people who never take any time off, people without kids or family, people who prioritize work first.  This is just a fact of life. As a PI, there's always more work to do.

2.  However, a week off probably means very little in the grand scheme of a year.  It's very unlikely that you will miss out on some major breakthrough that you wouldn't otherwise make.  It's very unlikely that you would have written an extra grant or paper during that week.  It's very unlikely that your students or postdocs will need you at all that week.

3.  As a matter of fact, people in the lab like it when the boss is on vacation.  In my experience, I never accomplished less when my boss was away, but it felt like a mini-vacation for me because I felt like I could be more flexible with my own hours.  Might the PI taking a vacation actually also be good for the psyche of our lab members?

4.  When I am away on vacation, I usually spend a few early mornings in a coffee shop with my laptop doing small tasks.  This includes things like replying to emails, approving time sheets, and maybe reading/reviewing a paper or writing a reference letter.  I do not do anything that is truly laborious, and I do this work in a leisurely, enjoyable way, i.e., while drinking coffee, eating pastries, and people watching.

So basically, my vacation philosophy is that it's good to do a few times a year, but that it's my own personal decision whether or not it's time that I can afford to lose at work.  And furthermore, being on vacation doesn't mean that I'm 100% off the grid and checked out from the lab.  

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Should I say yes to writing an invited review article?

Lately I've been saying yes to a lot of additional work because I wanted to increase my total number of publications for my tenure dossier submission.  This included writing a commentary on a paper that I reviewed, as well as writing two invited review articles.  Invited articles are usually peer-reviewed, but much less stringently than research articles, and they are almost always accepted ultimately.  However, these types of articles are inevitably a lot more work than I initially imagine, and they take away from effort spent on actual research. So I've started thinking about advice for whether or not to accept these offers.

1.  If it's in a good journal, then yes.  By good, I mean impact factor 6 or greater.  Don't waste time writing for a journal you've never heard of, or if it doesn't have an impact factor or isn't on Pubmed.  I get multiple requests from predatory journals like this almost every day and just ignore them.

2.  If the person inviting the submission is an actual working scientist in your field, and the invitation is personalized, then I would suggest saying yes as long as it's for a journal you've at least heard of.  On the other hand, if it is a form letter telling you about a special themed journal issue, or if it's from an editorial assistant, this is not a "real" invitation and so I would generally ignore those.  An email reply declining is usually not required. 

3.  If I have a new student or postdoc who could benefit from a quick first author publication for improving their chances at a fellowship grant, then the answer is almost always yes as long as it's a legitimate journal that's on Pubmed. 

4.  If the proposed topic is not something that you care about or that you have the reputation/expertise to write about credibly, then say no.  The exception to this would be if it's in a really great journal.  Last year I wrote a review article for a journal that actually has the highest impact factor of any journal I've ever published in.  However, I was an expert in only one small aspect of the very broad topic.  This made writing the review an enormous amount of work.  However, I think I would do it again because I learned a lot and now have a publication in that very prestigious journal. 

5.  The more options the invitation provides, the better, and the more likely I would be to say yes.  Does it limit how many coauthors you can have?  Does it leave the topic up to you?  Does it allow either a short or a long format?  Do they let you choose your own deadline?

6.  All of this is of course dependent on whether you actually have time to devote to a writing project that will probably not be seen as a real peer reviewed research article for promotion and tenure.  On the other hand, increasing your total publication numbers is always good, and invited articles demonstrate that you have a reputation for expertise in your field.  But, I would always prioritize lab research productivity over writing reviews.     

Monday, March 5, 2018

Tips for new professors regarding the promotion and tenure dossier

I spent the past few weekends compiling and polishing my promotion and tenure dossier.  Here are a few overall suggestions I have for new professors so that creating this document is an easy process when it comes time for them to do the same. 

1.  Know what information is required.  On day 1, ask to see a recent successful tenure dossier from your department so that you know what you need to keep track of.  Some universities require a lot more information than what you would include on a standard CV.  For example, does your university require you to just list the names of journals you review for, or do they want to know the number of times you’ve reviewed and the dates of each review you submitted? 

1A.  Know what time-sensitive information is required.  For example, my department requires student teaching evaluations and at least one faculty teaching evaluation for every year on the tenure track.  If you don’t have this for years 1-5, there’s no way to make up for it in year 6. 

1B.  Make sure you know the unwritten requirements of the department and university.  Do you need 2 R01s?  Do you need to serve on study sections?  Do you need a Nature paper? How many papers do you need to be seen as highly productive?  Might lower impact papers actually count against you?  Do you need to be on a national committee?  Do you need to be an editor of a journal?  Do you need to have graduated a PhD student?  Do you need to have won a fancy new investigator award?  Do you need to have given invited talks at universities?  Do you need to give talks at conferences, and do they need to be keynote lectures or just short talks chosen from abstracts?  Knowing what is expected will help you to make it happen before it's too late.  

1C.  Know the format of the information that is required.
  You can get this from the sample dossiers you’ve collected in point 1 above.  Use this exact formatting when you’re keeping track of your accomplishments (see next point).  

2.  Keep a running list of everything you do and update it religiously. It will be nearly impossible to remember every committee meeting, every seminar, every poster session you’ve judged, every study section, etc. after you’ve been a professor for six years, not to mention trying to remember the dates of the things you’ve done.  I kept great records of everything during my first 4 years and it made my 4th year review document incredibly easy to prepare.  I, unfortunately, became less diligent after that and had to spend a huge amount of time finding and formatting all the info for the past two years when preparing my final dossier. 

3.  Be creative when thinking of ways in which you can demonstrate national/international reputation.  Early on, I started keeping track of who was asking me for reagents.  Now I have a list of people from around the world who have requested DNA expression constructs generated by laboratory.  I’m including this as an appendix to my dossier because I think it demonstrates the importance of our work and also “international reputation” in my field. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Unusual Work-Life Balance Advice for Students and Postdocs in Biomedical Science

I’m going to share a little secret.  Your PI does not care about hours in the lab.  Your PI only wants one thing from you – Data.

This may seem obvious, but below I’ll discuss what type of data I’m talking about, and how you might approach your boss with it.  The goal here is that you work less and have your personal time without ever being on your boss’s radar.

1.     I’m NOT talking about emailing your boss a data dump. It is annoying to get an email with four Excel files and a message saying, “Here are my four experiments.  Check them.”  The first thing the PI will think is why are you sending this without putting any effort into analyzing it yourself, or in other words, why aren’t you working more?  This is exactly what you don’t want your PI to be thinking about you. 

2.     So how should you approach your boss with data?  Try this approach.  “Dear Boss:  Attached is a figure I made from my last four experiments on XYZ.  I think it’s clear that X enhances Y by acting on Z.  I’ve also attached the raw data files for you to look over.  Let me know if you have any suggestions on the analysis or the figure.  Next week I’m going to test effects of W on Y.“  The key here is that you made a figure, you’ve offered up an interpretation of the data, and you’ve made a plan for the future.  Your PI is not going to be looking for you in the lab over the weekend. They’re too busy looking for the Data Dumper.    

3.     What is the type of data that your PI really wants?  They want something new to present at a conference. Something that will make the lab look good.  Something that is publication quality.  Something that can be used as preliminary data for a grant.  Nothing will make your PI happier than data that can serve one of these purposes.  All of this means that you should be thinking about how exciting your results would potentially be when you start a project and when you design each experiment.  You do not want to be the person in the lab generating mountains of boring data that the PI will never want to talk about at a conference and that will always be on the back burner to write up for a low impact publication.  If you’re this person, your PI is going to want more from you no matter how many experiments you're doing.  Instead, be the person working on the high impact project.   

4.     So how do you get a high impact project?  Here are some ideas/strategies that I think are worth considering.
a.     Have multiple side projects at all times, and follow through on the one(s) that are turning out to be the most exciting. 
b.     Abandon boring or dead-end projects before you’ve wasted too much time and effort.
c.      Go to lots of seminars.  These will give you new ideas and reveal potential links between your work and theirs that you never would have thought of. 
d.     Present seminars at every opportunity you get.  This will give you extra external motivation to get exciting results so that you have something interesting to present. 
e.     If someone else in your lab has an exciting project, talk to them and the PI to see how you can get a piece of it for yourself.  Or even better, come up with a new angle or direction on this topic that you could pursue on your own. 

5.      Strive to collect real data every single day that you’re at work.  I’ve seen people go for weeks in the lab without collecting any data.  They use excuses like mice not being ready, cells being contaminated, the reagent they need is backordered, etc.  But here’s what the PI is thinking…  Why don’t you have 5 experiments worth of samples in the freezer ready for you to run tests on when you have down time?  Why don’t you have in vitro experiments to fill in the gaps between your mouse experiments?  Why aren’t you borrowing that reagent or designing other experiments in the meantime?  If you want to work less, give your PI data, not excuses.    

6.     My last piece of advice regarding your data is that you should always have publications in mind.  Always be thinking about the narrative that you are going to tell in your paper.  Also, don’t wait for your PI to tell you to write it up. When I thought I had enough for a manuscript, I wrote it up.  This included methods, discussion, figure legends, a letter to the editor – everything that was needed to submit.  I’ve watched certain colleagues toil for years without publications because they didn’t take the initiative to write up their own results.  I may have said this before on this blog, but a PI is almost never going to prevent you from submitting a paper if you’ve already written a high quality draft.  Who do you think the PI is going to be looking for on nights and weekends – the person who sends figures and manuscript drafts or the data dumper with the boring project and lots of excuses? 

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Do not talk about things you are reviewing!

This post is again inspired by science Twitter.  A full professor and HHMI investigator at the Rockefeller University, tweeted, “Why does every PhD applicant start their essay with 'since I was young, I have been curious.'” 

Some students (and professors) saw this as mocking young people at a fragile early stage in their careers who are trying their best to answer a vague essay question.  Even worse, they saw this as using her platform as a famous professor to punch down at those from underprivileged backgrounds who may not be savvy as to what academic admissions committees are looking for.  She received tweets and commentary attacking her personally as well as saying she must be a terrible mentor.  She has since apologized, and the apology seems to have been well received by the science Twitter community. 

I certainly would accept her apology, but there’s a really important lesson to be learned from this for all of us professors.   

DO NOT publicly disparage anything you are reviewing/judging.  Even if it’s vague and anonymized, as the tweet above was, you still can’t do it.  The students who started their essays this way are clearly going to feel like idiots if they see the tweet.  Same goes for things you’re grading for classes.  Same goes for grants you’re reviewing for the NIH.  Do not talk about them at all, especially not in a public forum.  In the case of your classes and the NIH, it’s not only unethical, but you will get yourself into potentially serious trouble. 

If you can’t help yourself and feel that you must say something, then say how great the applications are.  I’m currently up for a grant from a foundation, and I saw that one of the reviewers of these grants tweeted about how inspiring the applications were this year.  That made me feel great even though I don’t know if he was actually talking about me. 

If you must criticize, think of a better way to do it. Post a list of tips for improving essays/applications/grants/etc .  Make a list of advice for making your essay stand out.  Do something that is actually helpful! 

Friday, January 5, 2018

Do I need a CNS paper to get a faculty job?

There’s a lively exchange occurring among scientists on Twitter right now regarding the advice that you need a Cell, Nature, or Science (CNS) paper in order to land a faculty job. 

There are lots of well-established professors chiming in that they didn’t have a CNS paper when they were hired, and that they don’t require CNS papers when judging job applicants. 

That’s all well and good, but I find their statements somewhat disingenuous, possibly outdated, and somewhat misleading for postdocs who want to continue in academia. In order to get a faculty job, you must have a strong publication record in respected journals.  This is the spirit of the CNS advice.  There is no way around it.  This is an absolute requirement, though the CNS advice certainly does not need to be taken literally.  The person with five PLOS Genetics papers is perhaps even more likely to get a faculty job than the person with one Cell paper. 

So where does the perception of the CNS requirement come from?  Everyone wants to work at Harvard, Rockefeller, Stanford, etc.  These places get hundreds of applicants for every position.  They generally hire people who not only have one fancy paper, but a history of multiple fancy papers at each stage of training.  These are the superstars getting hired at superstar institutions.  These are the most notable hires in the country, the ones people are talking about, the ones who are giving invited talks at conferences in their first year as a PI, the ones who get the early career awards from the scientific societies, the ones who get the NIH Director’s/Pew/Searle/BWF/HHMI grants.  When these are the only faculty hires we pay attention to, of course it seems like you need to have a CNS paper to get a job.

But!  There exists a world of top notch science outside of Harvard, Stanford, Rockefeller, and the like!  That person with the 5 PLOS Genetics papers we talked about earlier – they get hired at State U, do great science with great students, are equally successful with NIH grants, often have even more resources and collaborators, have a less stressful environment with lighter salary recovery and tenure requirements, and ultimately have fulfilling careers.   

So if you want a more balanced picture of what is required to get a faculty job (not necessarily the “dream” faculty job), then expand your analyses to include the CVs of people hired at multiple different types of institutions. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

One more tenure catch. Giving external seminars.

In my previous post I described that I was caught off guard by the fact that my department chair and tenure committee were advising me to wait another year before submitting my dossier.  When I spoke with my department chair, she recognized that I was frustrated, and after I left, she contacted the dean, and asked him to review my CV to provide another opinion as a personal favor to her.

The dean concurred with my chair that I should wait a year so that it is a no-brainer decision.  However, the dean also made another comment.  It was something along the lines of, "I don't know that this person would receive tenure without being invited for several external seminars at other universities."  Again, this is something new that has literally never once been mentioned as a deficit in my reviews for the last four years.  I have papers and have been on study sections, so I never really thought about this as a problem.  But hearing this from the dean sent my chair into action, which I'll talk about below. 

First of all, I know that everyone always says, "just contact your network and ask them to set up a seminar for you."  I have in fact done this, and everyone always says, "I'd be thrilled to organize a seminar for you if you're ever in our area, but I don't have available funds to pay for the travel."  Basically this means that if it's free for them, of course they would host something, but without a Nature paper, an Assistant Professor doesn't qualify for their fancy seminar series.  I understand completely.  I'm in exactly the same boat.  I have many friends and people in my field that I would love to host for a seminar here, but they don't meet the level of fame required for our limited number of seminar spots.   

I asked some of my colleagues for advice, and word got around that I needed help with this.  My department chair and several other people in my department have gone out of their way to make phone calls and send emails to their friends around the country.  One of my colleagues said that they emailed everyone that they've written a tenure letter for over the past five years because they should owe them a favor.  I've been overwhelmed by how generous my colleagues have been.  As expected, 99% of the responses from people have been something along the lines of what I wrote above regarding hosting me if I'm ever in town.  At least this gives me some options, and I may choose conferences more strategically with potential seminar locations in mind.  But somehow this networking strategy did in fact work, and within 48 h of emails being sent, I have at least two "invited" external seminars lined up for later this year.  I'm really loving my coworkers right now!