Postdoc to PI transition: time allocation (in the lab / out of the lab)

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs Hyde has a post up about PI time in the lab. Physioprof has weighed in with his experience and Orac shares his experience in the comments over there. Since I’m new to PIdom, I thought I’d share a bit on my experience with this issue thus far.

I’m a pharmacologist first and foremost. In on way or another all us pharmacologists are influenced by the tradition of Julius “Julie” Axelrod. When I was a PhD student my mentor gave me the excellent book on the life and research of Julie Axelrod (and his progeny) called “Apprentice to Genius” by Robert Kanigel. I remember being struck by the fact that Axelrod had his office inside the lab and continued to do bench work throughout his career. Granted, times were different then, but I have to say that I was, and continue to be, struck by this ideal. If Axelrod did it, maybe I should too?

Well, facts of life get in the way here but, if I had my choice, I would like to continue to spend time at the bench throughout my career. I enjoy bench work, always have. As a junior PI I need to be in the lab too because I need to teach people to do things. On the other hand, looking over shoulders while people do things does no good at all. Moreover, spending all my time in the lab and neglecting grant writing is perhaps the most damaging thing I can do for myself and the people that have decided to join my lab. If I don’t get grants none of us will have jobs in short order and who wants that (certainly not Mrs Juniorprof). So what has Juniorprof decided to do?

As I’ve stated before, demands on your time are completely different once you get to PIdom. There are meetings to attend, at the home base and elsewhere. There are committees that need your attention and there is national/international service in professional organizations and in review duties that are important for tenure. Grants need to get out the door and so do papers. There’s also teaching (but in my case, not so much). But guess what, all of this ain’t worth a dime if the lab isn’t actively producing data which means I better find some time to get into the lab.

One way I have managed this problem is to get people with different expertise and levels of experience into the lab.

1) I have an electrophysiologist in the lab who needs no training from me. We spend time going over data and planning experiments. There is one source of data that doesn’t require me to be in the lab at all.

2) I have another postdoc with a high level of expertise in techniques that I haven’t used before but he doesn’t know how to do many of the things that we do in the lab. We’re teaching each other. As he learns about the techniques that I am familiar with I learn about how we can apply his expertise to our research goals. This leads to some highly productive time in the lab. He learns quickly and communicates his ideas on how to do things from a different technical angle succinctly.

3) I share a technician with another researcher. She handles some of our mol bio techniques. She knows what she’s doing and doesn’t need much guidance to set up an experiment. I spend some of my time with her planning experiments and analyzing data; however, most of our time is spent organizing the lab right now and getting all the ducks in a row to make sure that things run smoothly as we gear up for summer (when there are no demands on my time outside of research).

4) The grad student. Most of my time in the lab right now is helping the grad student learn how to do things. As summer approaches and her class load drops I intend to increase my time with her quite a bit. This means I need to get other things off my desk now. For instance, we’ve got two big grants going in this summer. My primary goal right now is to get them both done before her classes end. I’m well on my way to achieving this goal. I am hopeful that a little bit of planning on my part is going to pay off in a big way for both of us over the summer.

5) Finally, what about Juniorprof. Well, I’ve got this high risk, big impact idea that’s been brewing in my head for years now. The experiments will be quite difficult and will need some on the fly troubleshooting if they’re going to have any chance for success. When I’m not training people in the lab this summer this is what I’ll be up to. I don’t want to waste the time of others if it doesn’t work out. Their time is better spent doing things that we already know work and that will plug into the preliminary data portions of grants that are ready to go (and into resubmissions). Moreover, if I can get the method worked out I can then teach someone else to do the high risk project. The idea is to get it off the ground and then pass it onto someone else to complete the project.

If I get to have my way, I’ll continue to get into the lab to get new projects off the ground. But this is for my wild and crazy ideas. If my trainees come up with some new directions for our work I am all for that but I don’t anticipate being the one to get those projects going. It seems to me that that would take away from their satisfaction in going from idea to running project (although I will certainly help them in any way possible). To me, that’s what mentoring is all about. Teach the trainee to think critically about the problem and give them the tools they need in the lab to go after it full force. Once those independent directions start popping into their heads get out of their way and watch them fly (but do everything you can to make sure that the questions are addressed critically and rigorously — even if the idea eventually falls flat).

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One response to “Postdoc to PI transition: time allocation (in the lab / out of the lab)

  1. Pingback: Around the Blogs | Bitesize Bio

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