Postdoc to PI transition: How life changes

I’ve been a PI for all of 5 months now. Just long enough to make some initial observations about how my life has changed. I enjoyed just about every moment of being a postdoc and the PI days have also been great thus far so there won’t be any value judgements made here. On the other hand, boy-oh-boy are things different.

1) Lab time: Back in the postdoc days time demands were always weighed against experiments. The number one priority back then was to get the experiments done and everything else was secondary. Not anymore. I’m still in the lab a lot now, but largely to show people how to do things. My top priority in the lab is to get my people up and running on the bread-and-butter techniques and once that is done I don’t plan to spend much time doing those things anymore (until troubleshooting needs to happen). I do intend to continue to get in the lab though, mostly to get some riskier and more technically demanding projects going. This has nothing to do with a lack of confidence in others, rather, I think it is better to keep them focused on things that we know how to do to be more productive. I’d rather be the one to fail and fail again on the new project until its worked out — then someone else can take over. I’m not sure that everyone will agree with this approach but that’s the plan for now.

2) Meetings: As a postdoc I spent a fair amount of time in meetings — maybe once a week (lab meetings not included). This was largely my choice as I wanted to get an idea of how these things went. Now I have some sort of meeting nearly everyday. Generally these are about plans for collaborations or meetings to put together collaborative grants. At this point in my career the number one priority is to get funding coming in the door. The work in my lab is the primary focus for the grant writing but collaborative efforts are also playing an important role. I have found that the more I meet with people the more interested they become in the research focus of my lab. Rather than collaborating on the projects of others we have been able to establish some connections that will help us test hypotheses that we are interested in pursing but are outside our technical capabilities. To me, this sounds like a GoodThing.

3) Manuscript reviewing: As a postdoc I reviewed a fair number of manuscripts. Now I get an invitation at a rate of about 1 every two weeks. I have yet to turn one down and don’t anticipate turning any down anytime soon. Reviewing is demanding work but it is a vital function. I also get the impression that editors really pay attention to who gives them a carefully thought out review and they reward you with a more important role. Eventually this can lead to an editorial board position. I think we can all agree that this is an important accomplishment in your career. Many of the manuscripts that I have reviewed are now coming into press. I have published several papers that have been vastly improved thanks to the insightful comments of attentive and concerned reviewers (and editors). I hope that authors of the papers I have reviewed feel the same about my efforts.

4) Teaching: I did not teach as a PhD student or postdoc. I teach only a tiny bit now (and I mean tiny). Thus far, my experience has been that if I am enthusiastic the students are excited to be there. Teaching has not been a chore so far and I’m looking forward to taking on a few more lectures. On the other hand, I am happy that my Dept chair has committed to protect most of my time for research activities (more than 75%).

5) Writing: If I’m in my office, I’m writing or thinking about writing (or reading drugmonkey). I’ve got more ideas sketched out in grant format than I care to think about. I did this as a postdoc too but I think about it much differently now. Back then I would sketch out an idea in a preliminary format and file it away. Now I spend much more time getting into the details while it is still fresh in my mind. This has paid off when it comes time to put the grant together. Now it becomes a cut and paste job with transitional-type statements thrown in. This greatly increases my efficiency and allows me to experience less stress.

6) Reading: About the same in terms of time but with a different focus now. Back in the day (6 months ago) I spent more time in the truly basic literature. Now I spend more time on the clinical lit trying to get new angles for the application of my basic science aims to clinical problems. This is completely driven by the current funding situation. I don’t look at it as straining to make connections to call my research “translational”. Rather, there is a wealth of data out there in the clinical lit supporting my position for the significance of my aims. If it helps me get funding then it is a good strategy. After all, I would like to keep my job!

7) Money: As a PhD student I had none. As a postdoc I had some. As a PI I have enough to be nice and comfy. I’m certainly not making a fortune but not stressing about paying bills is liberating.

8) Free time: I’ve always had as much as I want. I work a lot but don’t think about it as work. One big difference is that experiments dictate your life as a postdoc. This doesn’t happen to me now. I think it pleases Mrs. Juniorprof.

9) Administration: We happen to have an incredible administrative staff. This is something I didn’t think about while interviewing and I got lucky, I admit it. If you’re interviewing, its a good thing to think about. A quality administrative staff can save your ass in ways you never even considered. This is truly a GoodThing.

Well, that’s all I can think of for now. What say you?

19 responses to “Postdoc to PI transition: How life changes

  1. (or reading drugmonkey)

    gratifying as this is, we do want you to succeed you know! get back to work!

    Now I get an invitation at a rate of about 1 every two weeks. I have yet to turn one down and don’t anticipate turning any down anytime soon.

    yikes! while I agree that doing a fair degree of reviewing is excellent to get your talents in front of various editors…two a month does sound a bit excessive to me. unless you are getting really good workload-relieving help from your trainees?

  2. One of the biggest changes for me in transitioning from postdoc to faculty was dispersion of attention–going from being responsible only for my personal projects to having to be on top of lots of different projects. Have you found “bandwidth” to be a challenge?

  3. Well, I suffer from what my previous mentors have loving referred to as a “lack of focus”, hence, no bandwith problems for me. I’m loving the projects flying at me from every direction. Moreover, I have a list of projects I never had enough hands to do myself about as long as my arm. I’m looking forward to shortening that list.

    This is not to say that I’m not experiencing some major challenges. Perhaps I’ll do a post on some of those later.

  4. Sounds like the only meetings you have right now are cool lets-do-fun-science-together-meetings (gee, that sounds kinda dirty the way I said it, but I don’t mean it like that!)- just wait though,… you’ll get a phD in doodling when you are ‘invited’ to serve on curriculum, bylaws, etc. etc. committees…no REALLY, meetings are awesome… love meetings…

  5. Sounds like the only meetings you have right now are cool lets-do-fun-science-together-meetings

    Very true, no committees for me yet. I’ve heard that committee around here are very efficient. We’ll see, probably sooner rather than later.

  6. JuniorProf,
    I’m really enjoying your blog. Take advantage of all the time for your science while you can. Time required for meetings, committees, grant writing (and blog-reading; damn you, Drug Monkey!) and science-related travel seems to increase exponentially every year. I’m really trying to protect the fun brainstorming and data discussion with the folks in my lab since it is really the best part of the job!

  7. (and blog-reading; damn you, Drug Monkey!)

    ???!!???! We haven’t had any BugDoc comments on the blog since we moved to Sb.

    Why you hatin’???

  8. I’ve heard that committee around here are very efficient.

    you owe me one mouthful of coffee…..i’ll cover the screen cleaner.

  9. JP: Enjoy! you sound like you’re having fun, and that’s always the best bit.

    “I’ve heard that committee around here are very efficient.

    you owe me one mouthful of coffee…..i’ll cover the screen cleaner.”

    Oh, let’s let him have fun for a bit longer :-).

  10. I’ve always heard that my naivete was charming.

  11. Efficient meetings… yup, sure , ah-hah… what are you smoking???

    That’s a little like military intelligence and government efficiency…

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  13. -???!!???! We haven’t had any BugDoc comments on the blog since we moved to Sb.

    Why you hatin’???-

    You know I’m not hatin’ DM, my main monkey. I’m in grant and paper writing megalurk mode. However, I was roused out of my grant stupor by writedit’s chuckalicious post on how not to get a grant funded: Can’t believe this crowd hasn’t weighed in heavily yet!

  14. Can’t believe this crowd hasn’t weighed in heavily yet!

    You guys bogarted all the good comments already!!!

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