Part 1: Introduction
by Amanda Rasmussen
A cloudy day in June. I wait patiently outside an office for a meeting for which I’m 10 minutes early. The meeting is with a professor (Prof K) who has recently begun at Nottingham and whose research is of interest as a potential collaboration. As a newly appointed group leader on a Nottingham Research Fellowship (probationary Assistant Professor) I’m looking for new collaborations to help solidify my position. Prof K waves me into his office exactly on time. I shake his hand and sit down. The next few sentences are very confusing, until I realise that he thinks I’m one of his undergrad project students coming to discuss a potential project! Well I’m flattered (given that I’m mid-thirties) and amused! We quickly reset the conversation and in the 2.5 years since then Prof K has become a collaborator and mentor!
I’ve never told this story since – there didn’t seem a need – but I think it reflects the transition from post-doc to PI quite well. Initial confidence riding on the back of the success of getting the position and an assumption that everyone must know you’re a PI – surely! Then comes the realisation that your assumption is incorrect and people don’t know who you are or what the fellowship actually means. And so begins the struggle to be noticed, recognised and respected. I won’t lie, it’s a roller coaster! My transition so far looks something like this cartoon:
I have just signed my permanent contract which begins in May (I have a visa extension to get through before then) and I very much feel like I’m still in transition so to help me with this blog I’ve asked several peers from around the world to comment on their experience and provide advice.
Here’s a story from Katie (details about the contributors can be found below):
“At first, being a PI isn’t that much different from being a (fairly independent) postdoc. You have much the same motivations, pressures and mindset: keep up to date with the literature, generate data, publish publish publish… However, it soon becomes apparent that to do any of that at a rate that will make sure you keep up with your peers, you need people to help you. So you get yourself some students. PhD, MSc and UG project students all help the new PI generate new data at a relatively low cost. However, then you realise students aren’t going to do the research that you need to do fast enough because they need to learn, so what you really need is a postdoc, for which you need a nice big grant… And that’s when it dawns on you that most of your time from here on in is going to be spent chained to your desk writing grants to get research money. But that’s a lot of fun really, asking new questions and persuading someone to pay me to find out is one of my favourite parts of being a PI, allowing you to be totally creative and to really get in to the nuts and bolts of the science. I think it’s probably the main difference in making the transition: suddenly you’re the one responsible for the direction and fortunes of your lab. Big responsibility!”
But first a quick bio to outline my career path: I was awarded my PhD in Australia in 2011 and did two 2-year post-doc fellowships (one in Belgium, the second in Nottingham) before landing the Nottingham Research Fellowship in 2015 (3 year probationary assistant professor to build a research portfolio and team). My path to PI has been very strategically planned because I decided I wanted to be a research group leader during my two years working in forestry research between undergrad and PhD. During this time I worked for state government on forestry industry funded research. This time away from uni working with a fantastic team of people really shaped my perspectives. Everything I’ve done since then has been working towards becoming a PI. Not everyone has that experience, in fact it seems unusual – but then no two people I’ve spoken to have followed the same paths. With that in mind I’ve collated my advice and comments with that of 7 others to highlight some of the common things to expect in the transition from Post-doc to PI. Please join me in welcoming Aaron, Rashmi, Katie, Idan, Tom, Erin and Kaisa to the conversation!
Aaron Rashotte, Associate Professor (PI since 2007), Auburn University, US
Rashmi Sasidharan, Associate Professor (PI since 2010), Utrecht University, Netherlands
Katie Field, Associate Professor (PI since 2015), University of Leeds, UK
Idan Efroni, Senior Lecturer (PI since 2016), The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.
Tom Bennett, University Academic Fellow (PI since 2016), University of Leeds, UK
Erin Sparks, Assistant Professor (PI since 2017), University of Delaware, US
Kaisa Kajala, Assistant Professor (PI since 2017), Utrecht University, Netherlands
In the sections that follow we discuss issues that some or all of us have been through and at the end of each section we highlight a few action points that either helped us or we wished we’d known earlier!