Part 3: Hitting the ground running – but not too fast!
by Amanda Rasmussen
“I was told that starting your PI position will be slow, but I didn’t realize quite how slow it would be. After six months, I’m delighted that I’ve cleared all the paperwork and other hurdles to obtain my seeds, bacterial strains and consumables for my experiments… and this is in a system where you join a fully equipped lab with good support (technicians, GMO officers)! So do not be disappointed if your progress is much slower than your progress as a starting postdoc.” -Kaisa
Monthly skype meetings with Erin also usually find us commenting on the latest delay or frustration in how slow things progress for us both! And nothing works!
I was super excited to start my own lab. I couldn’t wait to get going on all the (crazy) ideas in my head. The reality: even with an operating budget (like my fellowship) there’s no money for people which means grants need to be written (requiring an inordinate amount of preliminary data), studentships applied for (see team building), and facilities improved (or built from scratch) – all of which takes time. To help keep momentum and a feeling of progress, one suggestion from several of us is to finish off half completed manuscripts from past positions (Tom, Kaisa, Me).
Advice from Tom which I think we all agree with:
“Until you get your first big grant, follow up every sensible funding opportunity that comes along. You can achieve a surprisingly large amount with small pots of money, and this will put you in a better position to get big grants”.
“small pots of money can be super important. Not only can they help until you get the first grant, they extend your monies when you have a grant, and can keep you going if you don’t get a grant renewed. They also show others that you are able to write and succeed in getting grants and should eventually land a big one, which realistically is just hard. Remember if you can run a functioning lab on a budget, imagine what you can do when you have a lot of funds.”
“I encourage any aspiring PI to apply for independent fellowships at every opportunity! I was awarded a BBSRC Translational (David Philips) fellowship, which has proven to be a real boost. It gave me the funds to really get my lab going quickly, being able to employ a technician and postdoc early on has helped enormously with early productivity and also for providing direction for my research.”
As things progress I’ve had periods of insane workload that I struggle through. I consider myself pretty good at organisation and knowing what is feasible (or only mildly too ambitious!) so I have been learning to say ‘no’ to things when my schedule is full. This is WRONG! In my experience I need to learn to say ‘no’ BEFORE my schedule is full because there’s ALWAYS a last minute opportunity that is too good to pass up. Spring last year was my first full teaching load, I was submitting an industry partnership grant to BBSRC, organising the seminar series and the bi-annual public botany seminar, and hosting a potential PhD student in my lab. My calendar was well and truly full. I started saying a blanket ‘no’ to anything before September. But then there was that one extra thing I was asked to write as the nominee from the University of Nottingham – can’t say ‘no’ to that. I spent another weekend working and ended up with a cold for 6 weeks. For times like this Aaron says
the “biggest lesson was that it doesn’t have to be perfect”. Referring to teaching: “In the beginning I would spend hours looking for the perfect image for teaching some point. Later I realized that the overall points are way more important than any image that students will look at for 30s” – Aaron.
Now I don’t want to suggest you should say ‘no’ all the time. I say ‘yes’ more often than ‘no’ and it has opened a lot of useful doors. The challenge is learning that the calendar should not be fully booked – there needs to be some wiggle room for last minute opportunities. Of course if there ends up gaps in the schedule then there’s more time for research and writing!
“Prioritize your goals while you adjust to the new role, be realistic in what you can achieve, realise it is okay to say no sometimes, find a good mentor and finally, don’t forget to enjoy the ride!” – Rashmi.
Momentum action points: 1) complete work from previous position during the first year; 2) follow up every opportunity that comes along.
Time management action points: 1) learn your limits and make sure there is time in reserve for last minute opportunities; 2) remember that many things don’t need to be perfect – let it go!
One of the biggest struggles for many of us has been in hiring new staff and students. Click here to learn more in Part 4.