7 Lessons to Keep in Mind If You Are Considering a Career as an Academic in Discovery-based Research
These are the standout lessons I’ve personally learned along the way to becoming what I am now, an “Early Established Investigator,” so, technically, these are my opinions. Regardless, I sure wish someone would have told these to me before I started. This advice is geared towards after you’ve received your first real grant or a start-up fund, where you can finally hire people.
Research is your lifeline. You must stay funded.
If you don’t, an imaginary bullseye will appear and float right in front of your eyeball. The Death Star will be trained on that bullseye and everything you’ve sacrificed to get to where you are in your career will be on the line. Don’t get blasted by the Death Star, stay on task. If you get funded, break down your budgetary years in quarters so you can stay on top of where you are in the years of your grant. Assess where you and your lab will be at the end of each and every week. Do everything you can to publish something big and strong if you can’t get something out small and fast. Yes, you have a small crew, but that should not stop you if you’re smart about prioritizing what’s to be done. Every year of your grant requires a Research Summary to be turned in, make sure you stay on task and fill that yearly summary with solid progress. Yes, Dr. Flanerhan over there is grinding out manuscripts, but Flanerhan has been in the game for 20 more years than you and has nine people pounding the bench on three grants. Be realistic with who you compare yourself to, your lab will be small, maybe even a power trio, so don’t look at Flanerhan, you’ll freak yourself out. Just get that first corresponding author paper out. Get it out. After that, immediately get on the second and third papers, maybe even a fourth. Personally, our progress was an uphill battle for the first three years but then the results started to pile on, so we’ll have more papers towards the end of the grant versus the beginning. We just need to get them out!
You got a grant or a start-up! You’re out of prison forever! WRONG. You’re on parole.
When I received word that at the age of 38, 16 years after graduating college, 13 years after starting grad school, and 8 years after obtaining my Ph.D., that finally I got an R01, my emotional response was not what I expected. Yes, I was excited, but that sensation was fleeting, it lasted what, maybe 12 minutes? Why? It was because anxiety quickly stepped in and punched excitement right in the face. Anxiety over the fact that I’ve now got just five years to prove I can function independently or all this will be gone. Years of wondering what it would be like to have extra hands on the bench helping the project out were replaced with years of wondering what it’s going to be like if I lose these precious extra hands. The first two years of the grant for us shredded by, looking back it’s almost as if we started at year 3. You don’t want to go back to prison right? So don’t violate your parole. Take advantage of this rare and unique opportunity, because it is awesome to lead a team and make next-level discoveries at a much faster rate versus on your own. A real grant is too precious to just nonchalantly run from the golf course because you’ve decided that this will be yet another 4-day weekend, your second of the month. This leads me to my next lesson.
Slacking off hurts YOU the most. Accountability is no joke.
This I’ve seen too much of at the junior faculty level. They’ve gotten a new position that comes along with a start-up fund, which is the equivalent of a decent grant. Or they’ve hit pay dirt and gotten a grant. Next thing you know, what were regular hours have wound up as this floating mess of a schedule that finally morphs into the justified excuse of coming in whenever the hell they want. Forget it. That’s like fishing without a hook, yeah you’re technically fishing but you’re not going to catch a thing. YOU slack off, YOU lose, period. Oh, you only work off hours and when I add it up you end up working about 30 hours a week? Cool. You’ll be looking for a job in three to five years. Why? Because typical start-ups are designed to fund a researcher for three to five years. That’s all you’ll get to build that start-up into an R01. That’s the accountability part, your start-up will need to transform into a grant and your first R01 will need to transform into a renewed R01. Your grant or start up does not gain you access to working less, you will work more, and if you don’t? Well, we’ve all heard about that amazing dough that comes with a career in industry, right?
Be careful who you hire.
Getting funded or obtaining a start-up means it’s time to start a lab. So you set up things through the HR department, get your job postings up and hey what do you know!? You’re already six months into the grant! Pressure begins, you’re the only one on the grant producing, things are already wacked out long-term schedule-wise. Candidates are few and far between and next thing you know you’re almost a year in and you’ve convinced yourself you’ve got to gamble on hiring the best of what you’ve interviewed. Don’t. Keep interviewing. Go with your gut if it is telling you “no no no, too much of a risk.” This is because in a start-up situation or first grant, funding is thin, so your crew will be small and that means everyone’s role is EXTREMELY CRUCIAL to the success of the grant. If you have one weak person they are going to waste precious resources and more importantly, they will waste your time on parole and you’ll end up with one foot back in prison a lot earlier than it needs to be. It is very difficult to ask someone to look for another job so do what you can to never end up in that situation in the first place.
Spend wisely and stay on budget.
It is simple. Your grant or start up pays two things – salary and supplies. Salary costs will be fixed so just subtract your lab’s cumulative yearly salary cost from your yearly budget and what’s left will be supply money. Take that supply money yearly total, divide it by 12, and that’s how much your lab gets to spend a month on supplies. Your department will have an accounting division, go find them, give them home-made brownies that have chocolate chips along with some of the expensive organic milk that comes in those recyclable glass jugs, whatever, just butter them up. Let them know you really appreciate them and you will deliver a lot more brownies if they could just get you monthly accounting summaries of your lab’s spending. Watch that dough, cause there’s nothing worse than realizing next year’s budget of 225k will take a 45k hit because you weren’t paying attention to how much you spent on proteomics the year before. True story? Maybe. Don’t judge, I’m trying to help you here.
Stay big. Go to an institution that has a ton of resources for discovery-based research.
You know what’s not so great? When you need to use a microscope that doesn’t exist at your institution. What are you supposed to do in the time you have? Good luck trying to request a collaboration via email or perhaps through meeting someone at a conference. “Hey, oh wow, so glad we met! OK so for this collaboration to work you’re basically going to do everything for me since you have the microscope, I’m so excited!” It doesn’t work, I tried. I imagine those people in their office, seeing the emails from me, and they think “delete” as their finger pushes the trash button. Go somewhere where you’ll be surrounded by technology that will be at your disposal. This will present you with no limits. Surround yourself with extremely smart people by getting hired at an excellent institution, your chances for collaboration will be amplified. I used to scoff at this notion, but then I noticed someone with only 15 more years on me who spent their career thus far at a very prestigious institution and this person had over 450 publications and counting. Lesson learned.
Fail faster to succeed faster.
This one you may already know, although it is a rule that is pretty important at this stage of the career. Failing faster gets all the inevitable failing out of the way a lot faster, so that success comes quicker. Failing is science, so hurry up about it. I always say it’s about a 95 percent failure rate. That keeps people’s expectations nice and low, yet kind of realistic. What I’ve noticed is that labs aren’t taking on enough per week, so they’re failing too damn slow. We like to take on a lot, as in, full saturation, with at least a six-week to three-month plan of attack across the board of everything we are doing. We want to take multitasking to the next level. How do you do this?! I can tell you how, by staying on task, managing precious time, not slacking off, hiring the right assistants, being smart with your money, working with intelligent people and failing a lot faster!
These seven lessons will definitely help navigate your way through the exciting phase of being an early investigator. I’ve really enjoyed the process of getting a shot at establishing independence and I am proud of what my power trio has accomplished. I would love to get the opportunity to renew my grant, grow my research program and continue our efforts aimed at curing diseases, who wouldn’t?! We just have to keep on sticking to the rules and hope the discoveries we make are impactful enough to warrant further investigation.
This article was written by Dr. Paul Langlais, a GSBS alumnus of the Biochemistry Ph.D. program. Dr. Langlais is currently an Associate Professor and director of a proteomics lab at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. Be sure to also read our “Alumni Spotlight, 13 Questions with Dr. Langlais.”