PI suckitudes?

Drugmonkey has a post up about a colleague potentially bailing on PIdom for another career path. I’ve recently posted on the same topic and expressed some of the same sentiments. In DM’s discussion of this topic he raises the following point on the suckitudes of PIdom and how they weigh against the positives:

I don’t think I ever really understood where PIs who express disappointment with non-PI career path choices are coming from until recently. No, not one of my trainees, even worse. One of my science homies is thinking very seriously about taking an alternative path. I’m trying to be supportive. I know deep down that this person will make the best decision for himself and his goals/aspirations in life. Academic PIdom has copious suckitudes that can be magically relieved by taking another path. I know this.

Still. He’s been toiling on the edge along with many of us for years, trying to make it as a grant funded research-focused PI. From many measures and appearances he’s finally won! Things are looking like the PI / research path is going to work, if not just fine, at least as well as anyone else has it. He’s poised to really take off, scientifically. Apparently it isn’t enough.

This little passage can be especially pertinent for the junior PI who is currently starting up a lab and experiencing the suckitudes that come along with the current funding problems. While I’ve addressed how life changes from postdoc-hood to PIdom before, it is worth revisiting some of these issues from a fresh perspective.

One of the biggest lessons that I have learned since becoming a PI is that the skin needs to thicken and it needs to happen fast. Over the summer months I have spent nearly all of my time either in the lab helping trainees get their work up and going or writing and/or revising grants. We’ve had a number of reviews of submitted grants come back and right now we’re working on a string of “unscored” apps that is beginning to allow the imposter syndrome monster to creep in. Nip it in the bud! Well, maybe it isn’t so easy. One thing I am rapidly learning is that you have to keep perspective and understand that you are far from the only one having trouble getting a foot in the door right now. I want to succeed at this job and the best thing I can do for myself is to balance my competitive nature (which frequently leaves me feeling offended at negative reviews) with my desire to maintain this career over the long haul and find the appropriate level of balance between the two to get off the floor and figure out how to do it better the next time. Right now the suckitude of poor reviews is far outweighed by the excitement of planning new experiments and watching projects begin to take off. There is no question that my trainees are excited about what we are doing right now and they are making progress at a rate that I, frankly, did not expect. This bodes well for all of our futures and it is my job to make sure that I don’t let recent grant failures get in the way of what we are trying to accomplish.

While repeated grant rejection is by far the biggest suckitude I have encountered thus far, there are some other ones that are beginning to creep in as the lab has become established and I have had more time to get more involved in other aspects of academia. One big one is negative attitudes. I’m rapidly finding that these are relatively rampant in some departments around here (and in hindsight I can see where and why they existed in previous locales). I am quite lucky in this regard as this type of problem simply does not exist in my immediate department. Hence, I have learned to avoid certain situations and to stay away from a variety of committees and other potential duties/collaborations that I don’t think would be fruitful. It is important to me to be surrounded by happy, upbeat people that enjoy their career. If this type of situation is not available to a PI I can easily see how various other suckitudes could be magnified to the point where almost any other job would look quite appealing.

Another potential suckitude is didactic teaching. If you choose the academic path it is likely that you don’t have a great aversion to teaching but there is no question that certain courses and certain teaching atmospheres can be a real chore. I am required to teach, although not terribly much, and my department chair allowed me to ease into it by sampling a variety of paths. I found one that I particularly liked, did a good job (somehow I got the highest scores in the session from the student reviews) and now I am set (for the foreseeable future). This is a huge relief because now I have a set teaching schedule (which is fairly light) for a class that I really enjoy and that I am completely confident that I can do well (you might have guessed, it is medical neuroscience). Moreover, this particular class brings in a large amount of revenue for the department so the chair is quite pleased. The revenue thing (especially for state medical institutions) is an important consideration for you junior PIs. You would do well to take a bit of time to learn about this and choose appropriately.

Back to DMs point, maybe it isn’t really the suckitudes that make PIs want to jump into another career. My brother recently left a job that had a suckitude factor that was nearly unimaginable. Just hearing about his day to day work made me want to quit his job for him. Its hard to imagine that PI suckitude could ever reach such a level. Maybe some PIs just decide that they would rather devote their energies to something else? A momentary pause to reflect on this possibility reveals that there are many other sciency things that I would consider doing with my life and I actually would like to do some of them prior to death. For me, now is not the right time (heck I just started) but in 15 years who knows. It is not too hard to imagine that I could desire a second career and that such a desire would have nothing to do with the present job becoming unappealing.

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4 responses to “PI suckitudes?

  1. I share DM’s potential loss of a close colleague, especially in the context of them being closely related topically. Sometimes the encouragement from a colleague is quite useful, especially when you might be so caught up with your own misery to see clearly that you can ride it out. In other cases, you just need to follow your gut.

    Try to keep the imposter syndrome at bay and surround yourself with local and bloggy colleagues who can help you with clear and rational assessments of where you are.

    And while unscored or poorly-scored grants are difficult to take, you’re smart to recognize early the need for a thick skin. We should also be thankful that we are not in the shoes of our colleagues in pharma who have lost their jobs entirely (my grad school contemporaries are equally split between pharma/biotech and academic/other).

    Bottom line: do what’s important to you to keep you motivated within the demands of doing what it takes to get tenure.

  2. We should also be thankful that we are not in the shoes of our colleagues in pharma who have lost their jobs entirely

    That is for sure. Like you, my contemporaries are roughly equally split and some of those in the pharma ranks have had their lives completely upended. I am happy to know that I am free to fail over and over again in obtaining funding (at least for the time being) without having to worry about losing my home, etc..

  3. This is what is so weird. For some people, the path to BigPharma (and NotSoBigPharma) looks totally secure and safe versus being a PI. To me, yikes!

    I look at all the peeps I know who went that route and they’ve seemingly changed jobs every 3-4 years and in any case are hardly ever working on what they were allegedly hired to do a mere one year out. Now that is insecurity! At least in academics if you have the 5 yr award, you are generally good for that interval. tenure and other promotion decisions are similarly at a defined interval. there’s a type of comfort there which BigPharma doesn’t provide (unless you are pretty damn lucky to have a 30+ year career at a single company/jobsite)

    you don’t get 6 mo notice that JohnsHopkins has just bought your University and you will be found to be surplus post-haste! You don’t get 1 mo notice that ‘well, I know your project is going great but….well we’re just not doing CNS drugs anymore, we’re going to focus on cardiac. see ya’.

  4. I look at all the peeps I know who went that route and they’ve seemingly changed jobs every 3-4 years and in any case are hardly ever working on what they were allegedly hired to do a mere one year out.

    With one notable exception, a person hired into a “higher” position, my limited experience with friends and colleagues heading to industry reflects this quite well. On the other hand, I know people who quite enjoy this constant shifting of research priorities and just want to have an interesting problem on which to work. The problem of not being able to get re-hired after a site closure, etc., appears to be a recent one; however, as Derrick Lowe has chronicled over and over again over at his excellent blog “In the pipeline” (see the blogroll) we may not expect to see this trend reverse itself anytime soon.

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