Diary of a new PI

So here I am, I’ve survived the transition from post-doc to lecturer. For the uninitiated, PI stands for Principle Investigator which started as an American term but has been widely adopted. Strictly speaking it refers to lead investigator of a research proposal and this will generally be a university lecturer who does research or someone with their own lab in a research institute. For anyone who missed it you can read about my job hunting experience here, and here!

When I was a post-doc I took a course called ‘How to become a PI’, which incidentally was very helpful, one of the things Anna Price advised us to consider was that in surveys PIs say they are unsatisfied with their work-life balance. The work-load isn’t unbearable but I reckon I averaged 60-65 hours a week over the year. This was more like 70 hours a week in the autumn term and 50 a week over the summer.

I ended the second of those posts saying the start of the year was a rush in both senses of the word and that pretty much sums up my whole year. It’s taken some sacrifices, mostly to my social life and my blog, but it’s been worth it.

Support – I could not have done this without help

I’d like to offer some helpful, insightful advice to people starting their first year in September but I’m not really sure I have much perspective yet. I’m sure there are many ways to survive and be successful in the first year but the things that have made the biggest difference for me have been things I had only limited control over. My post-doc supervisor Guy Tear not only guided my post-doc research but has been a mentor to me as I’ve moved into my new role. He has allowed me to take my research with me and is always ready with some advice if I need it, his support has been invaluable and it’s rarer than it ought to be to have someone who is so supportive to act as a mentor. Then there are my new colleagues who have also been amazingly supportive and encouraging, becoming a lecturer can be (and usually is) a daunting experience and to have brilliant support from both previous and current colleagues is amazing and fairly rare. I’ve also drawn strength from the many other scientists who blog and tweet, there is an amazing community at your finger tips pretty much any time of the day and night so I think I’m very lucky to be doing this now and not 20 years ago when you had to work a lot harder to reach out to the rest of the scientific community.

My final source of support for research has been a book ‘At the Helm‘ that my previous lab bought me as a leaving present and I guess this is the one piece of advice I can offer – get this book. Parts of it are very focussed on the USA (Such as the visa section) but on the whole it’s a great book, and the only one I know of that provides advice for people starting their own labs. I definitely found some of the advice really helpful. It prepared me for things I hadn’t even stopped to think about, such as how I would feel about having a different role in the lab.

The teaching

I had previously taught a few tutorials but had no lecturing experience so I was required to undertake a Postgraduate certificate in Higher Education. This is not a PGCE, which is full time and qualifies you to teach compulsory education, it is part time and only qualifies you to teach post-compulsory education. Some people think these are a real pain but I have to say for all the time it takes up it did help me to be a lot more confident in my teaching ability. We have a choice about whether we attend classes or whether we do an online learning version. Whilst turning up for classes seems like it will take up more time, you don’t have to find the motivation to set aside time and go through the material on your own. I wholeheartedly recommend that anyone who has this choice takes the attending version, just as you need support to get your research started having support for your teaching is invaluable, at least it was for me. Wednesday afternoons were a chance to debrief the previous week and compare experiences with my class mates, this was not only helpful but fun, I made some great friends in the class and learnt so much more from them than I would have on my own with twice as much time to study.

And yet…

Despite all of this support there were still days when I wanted to sit at my desk and cry, either from frustration or just because it can all be quite overwhelming. There are bad days, there are tight deadlines, there are university processes and procedures that no one explains to you, IT failures and yes, at one point, I even managed to get locked out of my office.

But this wasn’t so bad, thanks to many lecturers I know who talked candidly about their experience of starting out I knew what to expect. Knowing I might feel like this helped me keep some perspective which made the bad days much easier to cope with and it’s not as if there weren’t tears along the way when I was a post-doc.

Is it worth it?

Definitely! When a student says ‘you really taught me something, thank you’, when you get your first funding (However modest), when your first reagents arrive, when your first lab member arrives, you remember why you wanted the job.

Back to blogging?

I actually have no idea whether I will manage to find more time for my blog this year or not but I’d like to, maybe now I’ve unpacked I can blog my second year in the job!

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My reflection on job hunting

I can hardly believe it’s been so long since I last had time to post anything but I haven’t forgotten about my blog or given up on it 🙂

The new job is keeping me exceptionally busy so in the meantime here is a blog I recently wrote for BioData about job hunting…I meant to post a link to it straight away but did I mention I’ve been busy!

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How much is too much?

I’m back, I’m finally back! I have a phone line, broadband and a new mobile. No bookcases yet which is going to be a problem and no TV which is a problem right now, but I’m getting there…day by day the chaos is pushed back 🙂

As I mentioned previously I have reached a stage in my career when I have begun talking to potential aspiring scientists. I’m very happy to do this, some very helpful people gave up their time when I was younger to talk to me and I find it very rewarding. A question I have begun reflecting on from these experiences is how much information should I really share and is it dishonest to gloss over the tougher aspects of careers in science?

I’m always for sharing information and against keeping people in the dark so the obvious answer is that I should share as much information as possible. Certainly if someone asks a direct question it would be wrong to avoid answering it. Some of the people I’ve talked to have asked very sensible questions such as how many years do you need to train for? How old are you when you finish full time education? How much can you earn, early in your career and later? These are excellent questions and it’s great that young people are thinking about their careers in practical terms.

What I’ve been wondering about is whether my answers put some people off unnecessarily. If someone had told me at 13 I would have to study until I was 27 to pursue a career in science would I have been put off? If I had known how tough the bad days would be and how hard I’d have to work, would I have been put off?

I’ll never know the answers to those questions or whether anyone who decided against doing science would have had a career in science if life had been different and we had never talked. The reality for me is that I love doing science and I don’t regret in any way studying for so long or having to persevere through some bad days. There are bad days in all professions and many don’t have the same rewards as a career in science: Knowing that you’ve contributed to the knowledge base of mankind is a pretty special feeling. Working through a difficult problem is really rewarding, as is helping other people to find solutions to their problems. Science isn’t the best paid career but it isn’t the worst, I have a good life with all of the things I need and a reasonable amount of the things I want. On the other hand a career in science isn’t going to suit everyone, we all have different strengths and aspirations.

So the essential question seems to be how is the information perceived and what can I or should I do to ensure it comes across in a positive but balanced way?

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Coming soon…

I know I’ve been neglecting my blog terribly, lots to say but it’ll have to wait for me to unpack my new flat and my internet connection to be activated 😦

Why exactly does it take 2 weeks to turn a phone line on…?

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The life of a scientist is never dull! (Part 2)

It’s been another varied and exciting week for me as I begin the transition between my current job as a post-doc and my future job as a lecturer in biomedical science at the University of Greenwich. Thankfully it hasn’t been quite as hectic as my last ‘life of a scientist’ blog!

On Monday my priority was reading through the manuscript of the project I mentioned in my last blog and it was really satisfying to see that work start to come together into a manuscript. There is still some work to do before it’s finished but it’s lovely to see all the hard work of our graduate student coming to fruition. The course of science can seem infuriatingly slow sometimes but you just have to keep at it, the main delay has been trying to finish some genetics and that just can’t be rushed. Each generation when you breed fruit flies takes ten days, there is simply no way around it!

Tuesday I took the day off from my current job to go and visit the university I will call home from September and Kent welcomed me with some really glorious sunshine. It was lovely to have chance to visit again and I’m really looking forward to getting started.

Wednesday was all about reading, which I opted to do at home where it is quieter. I currently share an office with sixteen people and it can be hard to find even a few quiet minutes let alone several quiet hours to concentrate.

The highlight of Thursday was showing someone around the lab and what it’s like to do science (at least to do the science I do!). It was a real pleasure to do this. Many people helped me when I was young and investigating the possibility of doing science, I can never really repay them but it’s satisfying to be able to do the same for someone else.

Friday, the end of the week! One of the main jobs for the day was cleaning out the fly room, yes, even post-docs have to do chores sometimes! We do this about once a year and since everyone mucks in it’s usually done quite quickly, it’s also a fairly sociable occasion. Having managed to do a few other things and work on a paper I’m trying to write about my own work we then finished off the day with wine and cheese in our office.

So all in all lots of reading and talking this week and not many experiments, life in academic science is both varied and flexible and, for me, this is a big part of what keeps life in science fun.

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We are all connected

This is the world where we live

I love the striking imagery in this, our world is so beautiful.

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The diary of a post-doc

Today, Tuesday the 26th of July 2011, marks the beginning of my final month as a post-doc.

I say that with some pride but also a little sadness. My new job will be the beginning of a new era and one that I look forward to with excitement, but it will also mark the end of something. The end of a phase when I have had, at least in theory, the most freedom. Freedom to do research, to make decisions without the constraints of needing my work to fit together within the narrative of a thesis and yet also freedom from academic responsibilities. I’ve taught quite a few students over the last six years but it’s always been my choice to do that, I was always free to say no.

As my very wonderful mum taught me as a child, what shines the brightest light also casts the darkest shadow, and the flip side of that freedom is that it’s easy for post-docs to feel ignored or unsupported. Somehow not quite fitting in to the academic structure, no longer students but not really staff either. I’ve been very fortunate in having a great mentor who has given me some space to explore and enjoy the freedom but who was still there to support and encourage me when I needed it.

Whilst it’s good to focus on the positive and remember the good things, it’s not good to let the rose tinted glasses cloud our vision too much. I’d be lying if I said the whole six years were wonderful and I never felt ignored or frustrated. There have been good days and bad, frustrations and anger, despair and even a few tears along the way, just as I am sure there will be in my new job.

I started this post saying I look forward to my new role with excitement and I do, but I also look forward with some trepidation, am I really up to the job, juggling so many balls and having so much responsibility. Not to mention becoming the principal investigator, I’ll have to make the decisions about my research and I will succeed or fail by them. This is unknown territory for me but it’s not unchartered water I’m sailing into, others have been there before me and I won’t be alone.

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