In this episode of
Expert Insights for the Research Training Community, Dr. Prachee
Avasthi, an associate professor from Dartmouth College, and Dr. Olivia
Rissland, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of
Medicine, reveal strategies for searching for a faculty position, best
practices for getting a research program up and running, and the joys and
challenges of managing a lab. You’ll also hear them discuss applying for
funding as an early career investigator.
The original recording of this episode took place as a webinar on June 18,
2020, with NIGMS host and director Dr. Jon Lorsch. A Q&A session with
webinar attendees followed Dr. Avasthi and Dr. Rissland’s talk.
Recorded on June 18, 2020
Download Recording [MP3]
Welcome to Expert Insights for the Research Training Community—A podcast
from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Adapted from
our webinar series, this is where the biomedical research community can
connect with fellow scientists to gain valuable insights.
Dr. Jon Lorsch:
I’m Jon Lorsch, Director of NIGMS. I’m extremely happy to have all of
you joining us for this webinar. This is our second series of these
webinars that are targeted mainly at trainees but for anyone in the
biomedical research or other communities interested in the topics.
We’re very pleased today to have Olivia Rissland and Prachee Avasthi
talking to us about starting up your own lab as an early career
I wanted to address a couple of things just up front, off the bat,
before we get started
with Olivia and Prachee. The first is we certainly recognize that
starting your own lab is always something that is a challenging
endeavor—hopefully also an exciting endeavor—but in these uncertain
times where we have COVID-19 going on, we have difficulties with
anti-black racism and racism in general, and many other challenges—the
economy that’s suffering due to the COVID-19 crisis—we recognize that
the academic job market may be more than a little unstable at the moment
and for the next little while.
So we’ll try to address that during the course of this discussion, but I
think, do recognize that NIH and certainly the academic community are
acutely aware of this problem, and from NIGMS’s point of view, in the
post-COVID recovery period, one of our primary focuses is going to be on
postdocs and trying to help them weather the storm and bridge the gap to
getting their next positions, whatever those may be.
So things like extensions of F32s and K99s will be considered. Right
now, if you were thinking about applying for a K99 or you’re an
early-stage investigator getting ready to apply for your first grant,
eligibility can be extended for those things, ESI eligibility, K99
eligibility. Just ask. Talk to your program director and you can request
I also want to address up front the anguish and outrage that much of the
country feels related to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and
Breonna Taylor—and many, many others over the decades and the centuries
really, and the long history of anti-black racism in this country. It’s
something that we wrote about. I posted a post on the Feedback Loop last
week. I would encourage all of you to go look at that if you haven’t
already. It has some resources that you can look at—particularly those
of us in the majority and/or in positions of power/authority to move
forward positive change in real ways in the coming weeks, months, and
We also have a new program I want to make all of you aware of called
“MOSAIC,” which is a program designed to help bridge the gap from the
postdoc years into the early career investigator years with a really
targeted focus on improving the diversity of the faculty within
research-intensive institutions. So there’s a K99/R00 phase and then
there also will be grants given to professional societies to help
provide skills building and career mentoring for the K99 and R00
fellows. So look at that yourself, spread the word: MOSAIC. We should be
giving the first awards in that soon and continuing the program and
hopefully growing it.
Then, without any further ado, I would like to not introduce our two
panelists—Olivia Rissland and Prachee Avasthi. They are going to
introduce themselves as part of what they’re going to tell you about.
So take it away. I think we’re going to hear from Prachee first, right?
Dr. Prachee Avasthi:
Thank you so much, Jon. I really appreciate this opportunity, and I’m
really glad that all of you are here with us today.
My name is Prachee Avasthi. I’m a cell biologist. I’m about two weeks
from officially being an associate professor, and I’m moving my lab this
summer from University of Kansas to Dartmouth. And my lab studies how
regulation of both microtubule and actin cytoskeleton controls assembly
of this sensory organelle called the cilium.
But when I’m not nerding out about the cytoskeleton, I’m involved in a
lot of different initiatives that tackle what I think can be improved
for me and others in science. So I’m on the board of directors of the
preprint advocacy organization ASAPbio, the board of directors of the
open-access journal eLife, and the steering committee of Rescuing
Biomedical Research, which is concerned with the overall sustainability
of the biomedical research enterprise.
I also started a peer networking community called New PI Slack, which
I’ll describe briefly in a moment and is very pertinent to our
discussion here. So I just wanted to start off with just a few initial
remarks before I kick it to Olivia.
I want to start off by saying there are probably about as many ways to
run a lab as there are people doing it. The best thing about this job,
in my opinion, is that you get to choose. You can cherry-pick the best
lessons from your previous mentors or rebel against them. You will get a
ton of advice. But you get to decide what kind of scientist, mentor, and
leader you want to be. And through this discussion I will argue for
bringing your unique talents to your science and your practice of it.
And it’s not just people like Jon that are in a position to set the
course. Each and every one of us has the power, and I would argue the
responsibility, to, with our individual decisions, to sort of improve
our corner of science. So it’s your job to find your voice, find your
scientific voice, how you want to do science, how you interact with
others in science.
There’s always going to be an army telling you to follow the rules until
you’re safe or that you have permission to abandon your principles or
your vision because you’re vulnerable or inexperienced. And I would say
that the spoiler is that we’re always learning and that the day may
never come that you really feel truly safe, and so while you’re always
going to be taking a risk whenever you deviate from the status quo, it
is your individual strengths for which you will be hired and rewarded so
I encourage you not to dilute those things.
So in that vein, I will just plug something that I mentioned earlier
that takes advantage of the individual strengths of PIs and uses it to
collectively help the group, which is New PI Slack. It’s an online
network now consisting of more than 2,000 PIs from almost every
continent. So I started this network in 2016, when I realized that
everyone starting a lab had faced the same challenges, and we didn’t
need to exhaust ourselves reinventing the wheel for every mundane
decision, but we could also use the ingenuity of each person to spark
better ways of doing things.
So my first advice is to join that group as you start your lab so you
don’t have an N of one or two from your senior mentors, but you can
benefit from the thousands of peers in addition to the best advice from
their own senior mentors. So you can ultimately use the wealth of that
information and pertinent experience to make the best individual
decision for you.
You can probably take all sort of highly specific advice with a heavy
grain of salt, but what I’m advocating for more generally is to find
your own voice in science, both to advance your career and bring your
unique strengths to the table. So I think I’ll leave it there and hand
it over to Olivia.
Dr. Olivia Rissland:
Great. I just want to start by thanking Jon for the invitation to take
part in this and thanking you all for joining us. I’m really excited for
this conversation, partly because I’m really excited to hear more about
what Prachee thinks because she’s really been a source of inspiration
for me since I first came across her on Twitter in 2016.
So a little bit about me. I am an assistant professor at the University
of Colorado School of Medicine. My lab studies RNA, and specifically
what happens to RNA in the cytoplasm. So we really want to understand
how messenger RNA is degraded, how translation is controlled, and really
how those two processes talk to each other. And I have to say that
understanding post-transcriptional regulation has really been a love
affair for me that started when I was a first-year graduate student. So
I can also talk about RNA for a very, very long time, but I will hold
off, briefly at least, on that topic.
I also want to tell you a little bit about my academic history, just so
you all understand where I’m coming from and also maybe appreciate that
there is no trajectory that you have to take. I grew up in the Boston
area. I went to Brown for undergrad, and then I went over to the UK for
graduate school. And I have to say even there that I really didn’t know
what I was getting into if I’m being fully honest, and so I think I sort
of made it through that system by quite a lot of dumb luck.
I then started my postdoc at the Whitehead with Dave Bartel, where I
worked on microRNA. Then I started my lab at the Hospital for Sick
Children, University of Toronto, up in Toronto, Canada. And then I moved
three years after starting my lab to the University of Colorado. And I
bring this up because I think one aspect that I did not appreciate is
when you start your lab is that you can move.
If things aren’t the way you want, or there’s a better opportunity, you
don’t have to stay at that first faculty position forever. And I wanted
to mention this now because I think I had a real misconception when I
started my lab about how frequent this was. And one thing I’ve learned
from the New PI Slack community is that people move a lot and that’s
The other thing I want to say in this introduction is that there are
challenges for running a lab. Running a lab is not easy. It’s hard
writing grants. It’s a challenge managing people. There are a lot of
things that you’re learning on the fly—especially right now during
But I also think it’s a pretty amazing job. Essentially, every day I get
paid to think about science, and to be curious, and to read papers, and
to figure out how we’re going to discover something. And that is
amazing. That feels amazing to me.
And I just hope for all of you that as you move forward in your careers
you can hold on to that excitement. Because if you can stay close to the
science, if you can still feel your curiosity, feel that excitement of
discovery, I think that makes a lot of the other bits of it a lot more
palatable. Because you get this huge reward of what we all love about
science, which is discovering something that no one has seen before.
And you now don’t just get to have that for yourself, but you also get
to see your trainees also experience that. And that is hugely rewarding,
and to be honest, I just think this is an amazing job. So I will stop
gushing there. I think we can start with the questions at this point.
Awesome. Thanks so much to both of you. What advice do you have for
people who are just starting out in their searches for an independent
faculty. So let’s even go before you’ve got your job. There are a lot of
postdocs, grad students. What advice will you give them about searching
for a faculty position? Let’s start with Prachee and then go to Olivia.
Sure. Obviously, we want to take current events into account and just
acknowledge what Jon said at the top of this session, that obviously
people are concerned about the academic job market, and I completely
And one thing that my feeling generally has been is that we don’t really
take into account the full spectrum of academic jobs. We are familiar
with our little corner of science, and even when we tell trainees when
they’re trying to decide on their career path to do sort of
informational interviews to decide on different career paths, I think
the same thing should apply to looking at different types of academic
jobs, at different types of institutions, in geographically diverse
places—whether it’s a medical school or an undergraduate institution, or
whatever it may be—to really understand what all those different jobs
are and how the balance between research and teaching and all of those
things are at all of those places.
So I really encourage people to do a little bit more digging to really
understand what all of those different types of academic jobs are, and
that will allow you to both broaden your horizons but also narrow your
focus into things that you are actually more interested in. So it lets
you refocus your targets for where you will apply.
And then I think people have a lot of different methods of going about
this, but I think once you have that broadening and then narrowing, you
can cast a wide net and keep in mind that you are looking for that place
that’s a right fit. And I will say that I have been wrong at every point
in my career of where I thought that right fit would be, just ahead of
time when you go on interviews.
Whether it’s for postdoc interviews or faculty interviews, you have this
conception in your mind of what you think is going to be the right place
for you, and then you actually go there. And then there are places that
completely win you over and places that you think, oh no, this is really
not for me.
And often we don’t know…we’re not in the heads of the search committee
members necessarily, so we don’t know what it is that they’re
necessarily looking for. And I have often found that the places that I
just applied on a whim, you go there, and interview and you think, oh, I
am a really good fit for this position based on what they’re looking
for. But you would have never have known that from the job ad. So I
think that not overly restricting yourself in that way is always useful.
So I think that’s my two cents is to really attack the initial problem
in a systematic way by doing informational interviews and learning about
different types of academic jobs, so you know what you want, and then
casting a wide net.
Great. Olivia, what do you think?
I think I agree completely with everything that Prachee just said, and I
would maybe add a couple other points, more specifically. The first
thing to think about in any job transition—any transition—you really
have to look within yourself first and really understand the things that
make you tick, things that you need in an environment, things that you
don’t need in an environment.
Because at the end of the day, you are the one who is going to be living
with your decision, and if you have not been honest with yourself up
front, if you have taken the shoulds of everyone else and used those to
guide your decision, those people aren’t going to be living in your
life, you are. And I think that can be a challenge sometimes to really
be fully honest with yourself.
And I think this is really important, because if you know what you need,
then you know how to evaluate a place that you’re going to. And at the
end of the day, you don’t just want any job; you want a job where you’re
going to thrive. And that you are going to find by being honest at the
The other thing that I would say is that I think sometimes, building off
of what Prachee said, we read job advertisements and we think, no, I’m
not a good enough fit. I don’t have enough publications to apply to that
department. I’m not whatever, whatever, whatever, and you opt yourself
out of these opportunities. And I’ll be fully honest; I did this when I
went on my job search the first time.
There were departments and searches where I was like, oh, I don’t have
enough papers. I can’t apply to that—and I didn’t apply. And now looking
back I’m like, Why didn’t I apply? What’s the worst that would have
happened? I wouldn’t have been invited for another interview. That’s
fine. So if something looks appealing to you, just apply, and let
someone else say no or say that you’re not the right fit.
The final thing, this again is touching on the scenario that we’re in
right now is COVID-19 is hard because there is a lot of information that
you’re not going to be able to get now. And this decision, part of the
stress of it comes from the fact that we have incomplete information,
and the information that we do have is not entirely predictive of what
life is eventually going to be.
But I would say that how search committees, how potential colleagues are
dealing with the situation, the types of ways that they’re reaching out,
the types of ways that they are treating those interviews, that’s all
information that you should be taking into account. Departments, I
really firmly believe, are showing through their true selves right now
what it’s really going to be like to be a member of that department
going forward. And that is important information that you should use,
because at the end of the day it’s not just that you want a job; you
want a job that you’re really excited about.
Yeah, that’s great. I think a great theme is remember the people giving
you advice aren’t going to be living your life. That’s a really good
point. So we’ve got tons of questions, so let’s get to some more of
So now you’ve got your job. We have a number of questions from people
who say they are going to be starting their lab within the next six
months. What advice do you have for them in terms of preparing, just in
general, to start your lab when you’re not yet there? And then, more
specifically to the point about COVID-19, in this particular
environment. So perhaps we can address those things. Olivia, you want to
start this time and then we’ll go to Prachee?
Sounds great. I think one thing that is important to remember, and I
think all new PIs when they start, you feel this pressure to get things
going as quickly as possible. You sort of feel like, I’ve got tenure
coming up in X years. I’ve got to apply for my first grant. I’ve got to
keep up with the field. I have these competitors.
And you are coming out of this scenario where you were really productive
as a postdoc and there’s this pressure to get something on the board.
And certainly I felt this my first year. For me at least, when I
started, I felt like every single setback was this huge blow that was
going to ruin my career.
Oh, I can’t get my TC incubators for a month? That’s a month! But at the
end of the day, it’s only a month, and science works over longer time
scales, and the time scales for success in running a lab are also
longer. So I think my first piece of advice would be to just be kind to
yourself right now.
It’s OK. It’s going to take a while. That’s part of it. And everyone who
starts their lab, and everyone who’s starting their lab especially right
now is going to face that. So I think the first thing I would say is
just kind of breathe a little bit and take the time you need to get your
feet underneath you.
I think there are some real practical challenges, right, like how do you
hire people so that you can start doing experiments if there’s a hiring
freeze at your university? How can you even start ordering things if
perhaps you need lab renovations? To be honest, those are really tough
things to deal with, and there’s no easy solution that Prachee, Jon, or
I can give you that are going to solve them. I think my suggestion would
be to focus on what you can do. Focus on the things that you can do
right now and just move those things forward. And sort of trust the fact
that the rest of it will eventually catch up.
So maybe you can’t officially hire people, but you could start
interviewing people. Or maybe you can think about, do I need to become a
member of a graduate program to be able to get graduate students? How
does that process work? Are there things that I want to learn about to
help me be able to hire somebody or to be able to go in this new
direction? Essentially, do what you can do now, and I think just try to
be…try to understand that this is a really difficult time, and it will
I agree with everything Olivia said. There is no time at which your
first year will feel like it is going fast enough for you. I guarantee
it. It will be frustrating, and nothing will move as fast as you want it
to. And you probably won’t even know how to make it go faster because
you’re just learning how administration works and learning even who you
need to talk to. You’re probably in a totally new institution, and you
don’t even know who to talk to, to get something done.
Everything feels like it’s 10 steps just to get to the thing you want to
do. So it will be frustrating, and it will be slow, and that’s why one
of the things…Someone had asked on Twitter about how are we going to
navigate starting a lab during COVID-19, and the point that I wanted to
make was that in many ways, yes, there are challenges that you may not
be able to get into the lab and may not be able to do certain things,
but that is often the case anyway.
You sometimes don’t have access to your lab space. You sometimes have
that piece of equipment that’s on backorder for six months all of a
sudden that you were not planning on that in your schedule. So these
sorts of setback are very, very common, so even though COVID-19 is new
to all of us and new to everyone, it is…these types of unexpected delays
are not uncommon in the first year.
So I agree with Olivia that you can move forward on these different
things. One thing I would say is—it’s going to sound like a broken
record, but I do think one of the benefits of New PI Slack is that you
don’t have to reinvent the wheel for everything. So you can get things
like lists of interview questions from dozens of people all within
So there are certain things that you just don’t need to spend a lot of
time doing, and that allows you to focus your time on things you do need
to spend your time doing. And so that’s one thing.
Another thing that my former program officer actually suggested: reach
out to your program officer at NIH, someone you think is aligned with
your research interests, and you can get feedback on some of your ideas
or float some specific aims pages to see if it’s a right fit for their
So these are things that you can do. Reaching out to people is always
something that you can do, whether it’s reaching out to people at your
institution to understand how these administrative structures work.
Reaching out to your program officers, reaching out to prospective
candidates for different positions you have openings for, advertising
Setting up your lab website, making your presence known. And the
presence of your lab, as many of you will know, it’s difficult as a
brand-new PI and you’re trying to recruit amongst many more senior
people at your institution, so that’s always a challenge that
early-career people face. So you really want to make a name for yourself
so that you can attract people to your lab. So getting that presence out
there is also something you can spend time doing. There’s no shortage.
It may feel like you’re slowed down during COVID-19, but the truth is
there’s actually 100 things you need to do, all of them yesterday, so
there’s no shortage of things that you can make progress on. And it may
be a little bit difficult to be able to move forward on some of those
things, given the circumstances, but it will move forward.
And then I echo everything Olivia said about it’s going to be
frustrating, but you’ll do great.
Maybe if I can just add one other thing that occurred to me while
Prachee was talking is that certainly when I started my lab, and
actually then even when I moved it, for both of those first setup years
I felt like I had very little time to do any type of real scientific
You’re just trying, as Prachee said, to do these 100 things—all of which
you wish you had done yesterday because nothing is moving at the pace
that you want it to move. And so you can come to the end of a week and
be like, what have I done? What science have I done? I’ve done nothing.
I’ve just been sending emails.
And so one thing I would suggest is you probably wrote a research
proposal when you went on the job market, these were the things that you
were planning to do. Some time has passed. Do you still think those are
the best experiments? Are those still the best projects? Do you have new
ideas? What would those ideas look like? What do you need to put into
place to make those ideas happen?
And almost give yourself a little bit of freedom to evaluate the science
you’re going to start off doing. Because why not start off doing science
that you are most excited about? Why wait for that? And this can be a
really good opportunity where you have this enforced time where you have
to take a little bit of a step back.
And I would also suggest thinking about science in the midst of all this
other stuff is actually a really great way to keep yourself feeling
connected to the science and still feel somewhat excited about this new
Great. Lots of questions about hiring. So let’s go to the hiring phase.
The first one is, in general, are there rules? Should you start with a
technician? A postdoc? Recruiting a grad student? What’s your thinking?
There are no rules, and don’t listen to anyone that tells you that there
I mean, this is one of those things that everyone has a very strong
opinion about, and if you talk to 10 people, they will tell you 10
different answers. So I would not fall in the trap of thinking that your
research program is—depending on what your science is, you may have a
research program that requires a mouse technician. Depending on what
you’re doing, it might be very, very specific. And also one thing about
graduate students is that they always tell you, “Oh yeah, you’re a new
person. You’ll have no problem attracting graduate students.”
Depends on your circumstance, depends on your department and who else is
in your department. So you don’t always get a choice in whether or
not…when your flood of grad students is going to come, whether it’s
going to be in that first year, or maybe it’s in year three. So some of
these things are not necessarily up to you.
And often, I think that the most common thing that I see from new PIs is
their immediate rush to hire another one of them. So the first instinct
is, I want to hire a postdoc. I want to hire a former me. I know me. If
I had just another one of me in the lab, I could just knock it out of
the park. And so it’s very tempting to try and recruit a postdoc early
on, and I will say that as a new PI, it is often very challenging, as
you can imagine, because postdocs have the choice of brand-new, untested
PIs and very senior mentors. And so it is always a challenge for new
faculty to recruit new postdocs.
So A, I would say there are no rules. B, it’s not always up to you
because you have to recruit these people. It’s not just about who you’re
hiring. You have to recruit them, which is work, and actually things
that you should be thinking about: how to best position yourself for
And then beyond that, it’s a really programmatic decision, based on your
research program. So I guess that’s the only thing I can say that’s not
I think maybe another way to put it is, just as there’s no right way to
make your first hire, make your first couple of hires, I would actually
say there’s probably really no wrong way to do it either.
There are many, many ways to get from where you are to having a really
vibrant lab. And so I think this kind of goes back to what I said
earlier. Sorry, I now have a cat who is trying to push my computer off.
I think one thing that’s really important is, again, recognizing what
you need and the types of people that you’re going to be able to work
One thing that I realized after I made a couple of hires that I wasn’t
totally thrilled with is that I don’t want to work with people who are
jerks. I felt like it took me too long to get here, and I want to like
everyone that I work with. And so that means that for me, when I’m
making hiring decisions, it’s really important that I have a process to
try to assess whether or not they’re going to be a jerk.
And I don’t really care how brilliant or how hard-working they are. If
they are selfish and not giving to the team, then that’s not somebody I
want in my lab. And so I think this is where thinking about what you
need from a personality perspective is also really important. And then
once you know that, then you have to figure out questions that you can
apply in a fair way to get at the heart of that.
Because I think there’s also something else you want to be really
conscious of, even in your first hire, is that however you’re making
your hiring decisions, that you’re doing it equitably, you’re doing it
fairly, and you’re not using proxies to make those hiring decisions,
proxies that aren’t really getting at what the core of the issue is.
Those are really important points.
Can I just say one other thing that Olivia reminded me of, which was
that I think that one thing that cannot be divorced from the hiring
decision is that it is also a mentoring decision. So we are training all
of these people, and we have a responsibility to do that. So I think it
is often a common mistake where people say, “Well, I want someone with
skills A, B, C that can hit the ground running on whatever thing.”
But the truth is, you’re going to be training all of these people, and
you have a responsibility to get them to their next career stage. It
doesn’t matter whether they’re a technician or whether they’re a student
or a postdoc or whatever position that they hold, you are going to be
training these people, and you are going to be fulfilling a mentorship
role, and so that hiring decision cannot be divorced from that
responsibility and making a decision on the basis of how you are going
Yeah, that led into the question I was going to ask you exactly right.
Someone was asking, how do you pick the best graduate student? You
basically answered it, but any elaboration on that?
Yeah, I would just say that I think, again, that is not…this is a
two-way decision, and it’s always important to remember that when you
are interviewing people, they are interviewing you. And so it’s really
important that you put yourself… you wear everything on your sleeve.
Make sure that everybody knows what they are getting when it comes to
your mentorship style. And so this is something that pretty much the
first conversation I have with literally anybody who’s considering
coming to the lab is giving them an idea of who I am and who the lab is,
so they have a really, really good sense of what they’re getting into.
Because one thing I want is I want people who want to be…who hear what
the lab is about and are excited about that. That it’s a mutually good
fit. That they see what we are about and how we do things, how we do
science, the things we care about, the way we operate. And then they
think, that is for me.
Because no one wants to have people in the lab who are unhappy. And so
it’s really important that you don’t do this bait-and-switch thing. You
make sure that everyone knows what they’re getting. And then I look for
mutual excitement on that front, that they sort of buy into us or my
Anything to add about grad students, Olivia?
Yeah, again I totally agree with what Prachee said. I think another way
to think about it is that creating great science, at the heart of being
a PI, this is now a collaboration, and it’s no longer you at the bench.
You are collaborating with another scientist to hopefully do really
exciting science together. And really at the core of any collaboration,
then, is making sure that the two scientists get along together, and
that can be many different ways.
Maybe you have complementary strengths that build off of each other.
Maybe you really push each other, or maybe you build on each other.
There are many different ways to do that. But at the core of it, this is
now a collaboration, and so that personality aspect becomes really
important. I will say for me what has worked really well and was
actually very useful when I started my lab is thinking not about where
someone necessarily is the moment that they’re rotating, or the moment
they’re applying to the lab, but where could they be in a year or in two
years? Because that’s the type of investment that you’re making in that
And for me, I felt like if someone’s coming in and they’re motivated,
they’re willing to work hard, they are willing to learn and listen with
me, and excited about RNA, those are all things that I could work with.
Those are traits that I know I can work with. I can teach somebody how
to do western blot. That’s sort of the easy side of things. It’s this
other personality aspect that’s a lot harder.
And if I had, for me, these key raw ingredients, like I know that we
will fly together. And every time I’ve sort of followed those traits,
I’ve been really happy with our relationship at the end. And it’s the
times where I haven’t listened to myself about this that I’ve ended up
with someone that I’m not so excited about, and where it hasn’t been as
productive a relationship.
Elaborating on that slightly. Prachee made the point about people
tending to look for another one of themselves, and I think you were
talking before about putting aside things that are proxies because they
can lead to biases. When you’re selecting people, though, that fit is
incredibly important, but how do you also mitigate against bringing
biases to the table that may be increasing the systemic biases that are
in the system? Any thoughts on that? This is a hard one for sure.
Maybe I’ll start. And I’m sure Prachee will have more words of wisdom.
I will be honest: I think it’s really, really hard. It’s really hard to
see your own biases. I actually think the first place to start is to
recognize that you have biases and to understand that that’s never going
to be something that’s going to be finished.
This is always an ongoing process where you always have to look back and
self-evaluate. And I think to also recognize that any individual hiring
decision is going to be really, really difficult for you to know whether
a bias came into that hiring decision.
You really, with these types of things, are going to see it when you can
look over many hiring decisions, because that’s where you can go from,
well, this person in particular made sense because of whatever post hoc
rationalization. But if you see over a period of time, hey, I seem to
only hire white women with brown hair who are runners who like cats,
that might be telling you something.
I think also going into it with some awareness that you’re probably
going to feel an affinity to people who have had similar histories to
you or who have similar outlooks to you. And I think you can actually
argue that at the interview stage originally. So you get your
applications, you’re deciding who to interview, and the first thing you
can do is look through that interview pile.
Does everyone seem to come from a university that I’ve heard of? Are
there other people who have had non-traditional backgrounds? I think
having these checks along the way is going to be the first step. And
also exposing yourself to scientists who look different and who have had
different backgrounds from you. The more exposure you have, the more you
can break down this image that you have in your mind of what a scientist
Prachee, do you have anything further?
And I would just add that I think one really good way to circumvent this
is to stick to the script and stick to a rubric, is having dimensions
along which you are going to evaluate. And it’s very easy to get into a
situation where you’re interviewing someone and you have a fantastic
conversation and you think, God, that person was great, and then they
leave your office and you think, I know nothing about them.
And I did a lot of talking, first of all, and then I heard less from
them. And I also sort of don’t know the answers to many of these
important questions just because you’re having this informal
conversation with someone you get along with. And so I think that it’s
really important to have that formalization. These are just good
Ask the same question of every person so that you can compare across
those. And have that ahead of time, before you ever meet a person and
have a chance to make biases that…to overweight certain questions
because you want it to fit that person that you like. So I think having
some sort of formalization of your process can take away some of these
biases. And put reminders.
There are studies that show that just asking people to consider, like
Olivia said, consider your biases when you are making these decisions
will get you to reevaluate through that lens, which is always a good
check on top of that.
There is a great example of a professional skill that should be taught
to everyone in grad school but isn’t, right? How to do an interview in a
systematic and effective way. But we’re just thrown into it when we
start our lab with no one ever telling us what to do. I think that’s a
And if I can just build on one final thing. The other thing to think
about, especially if you haven’t done hiring before, is you don’t
actually have to do it all by yourself. You can ask colleagues to help
with the interview or to talk with them one on one.
First of all, that’s a really great way of making sure that you haven’t
done the, oh, I really like this person, so I’m going to hire them
without having done some of these checks. But also think about are they
talking to a diverse group of people when they’re coming and
interviewing? Because that diversity will bring a diversity of
perspectives on a candidate.
And it doesn’t mean that you have to listen to what everyone says. And
we all know academics. All of us have our own different opinions and we
all want to be heard. It’s okay to disagree with some of your senior
colleagues. But hearing those opinions and those different perspectives
is a really good way of providing some checks against your own bias.
Lots of questions about scientific priorities. How did you guys decide
what you were going to work on? What you were going to propose to work
on, then what you were actually working on in your labs? Can you talk
about that a little bit?
When you asked that question, I immediately thought, this is a really
big challenge, because when you are a postdoc, you probably have
notebooks and notebooks full of ideas that your two hands just did not
have enough time to tackle.
And so you have these millions of ideas, but you don’t have infinite
resources and infinite hands to really do them all at once. But I have
always been of the opinion that we sort of cast a wide net and try
different things and see what takes off. This is how I do science in
general is to go with my very best guess for a good idea and do some
tests, try out as many things as possible, and almost always something
will win out, or you’ll get excited about a result, or something else
will take over and then you will be able to do that.
And yes, you have to think strategically about, in my opinion, when you
apply for funding, your history of training is very much emphasized.
What are you sort of an expert on and are you qualified to be working
on? So that sometimes is hard.
For example, there are things that I’m extraordinarily excited about
that we work on that I was never really formally trained to do, and it’s
harder to get funding for those things because you’re not a recognized
expert from your training in those aspects. So that requires
collaborations and things like that.
But I would say you’re going to need that preliminary data, so trying a
lot of different things that you’re excited about, something will almost
always take off that you can really pursue and refine as you go along.
Olivia, what are your thoughts?
Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, I completely agree with Prachee. I think
certainly my tendency as a scientist has been to be interested in a lot
of scientific questions. In fact, I think my real challenge is
prioritizing, not going like this. To be honest, when I was a postdoc I
had those notebooks of projects I was going to do, and I thought, when I
have my lab, I’ll finally be able to do all the projects that I want to
And it turns out now I just have more project ideas at this point. The
ratio of what we’re doing to what I want to do appears to be sort of a
constant of the universe. But I think something that people often do,
especially when you’re feeling really nervous—and I think this happens
also at the beginning of postdocs.
People say, “I’m really nervous. I want to look productive, so I’m going
to do a safe project. I’m going to do a project that gets me an easy
paper.” Well, the fact of the matter is safe projects, easy papers, that
doesn’t really exist. They’re all hard projects. They’re all hard
papers. They all require revisions.
And so I have this feeling of if I’m going to do science, I’d rather do
the science that I feel like is really exciting because for me, that’s
what gets me out of bed in the morning. That’s why I am a scientist is
because I want to discover something.
And the safe projects often don’t motivate me or get me excited the same
way. That is not to say that a safe project can’t lead you somewhere
exciting. It’s just that that’s sort of a serendipitous moment that’s
really hard to foresee.
So I would say when you’re starting, figure out the things that you can
do, things that you can do with the things that you have up and running,
and just explore and be willing to change your mind, be willing to
change your priorities, and be willing to accept that your original
ideas also might be wrong.
If you get that result that does not match—I mean, well know this—that
anomaly, don’t push it under the rug because it doesn’t fit with what
you want your R01 to look like. There might be something really exciting
there that’s worth your time to dig in a little bit more deeply.
Absolutely. And there’s a perfect segue into the next series of
questions, which are about grants, of course. When should you apply for
grants? What grants should you apply for? Talk about your experiences
there and what you were just talking about, about safe versus ambitious
fits into that. Prachee.
I think there is no substitute for writing a lot of grants. There are a
lot of different schools of thought on this, so if you were to ask this
question in New PI Slack, you would get a range of answers from people
who think you don’t want to put out a half-baked grant and you want to
make sure you get that first…
This is actually the advice I got, the sort of conventional wisdom that
I had heard from the universe when I started was, oh, you want to get
that first paper out because you’re going to need that paper in order to
get the grant, so focus on getting that paper. And I actually ultimately
don’t agree with this sort of thinking.
I think it’s really important to be open with your science and get a lot
of feedback, and that includes on grants too. And so you’re not
necessarily going to land your first grant—that’s an understatement—but
my feeling is that there’s going to be a lot of opportunities,
especially when you’re early.
There’s a specific, unique set of early career grants that you can take
advantage of. So obviously many of you are familiar with early stage
investigators at NIH, but many other types of foundation grants have
mechanisms that are specific to early stage investigators. And that
clock is ticking.
So you’re going to have a couple of shots on goal for that period, so
it’s really important to take advantage of that. What you don’t want to
do is just get your papers and things and then have your first shot on
goal be your last chance at one of these grants. So you want a chance to
get feedback and to revise your grants. You’re going to need feedback to
revise your ideas, and you should do that widely no matter
what—internally, externally, however you can get it.
Whoever you can get to read something you’ve written, you should take
advantage of that because that’s really your best path towards not
getting shot down by your one submission. My personal philosophy is to
apply to lots and lots of grants, as many as you can. I know a lot of
people think that’s not always time well spent. I’ve always found it to
be extremely useful, and I learn something every time I submit a grant
and every time I get feedback.
Yeah, I think one thing that you need to remember is that the grant
landscape now is very different than it was 10 years ago. It’s very
different than it was 20 years ago. And I think that it’s important to
remember when you’re getting advice from senior faculty that what they
experienced might not be what you are experiencing.
And I will say that I think this is one of the benefits of a community
like New PI Slack, where you hear a lot of experiences from people who
are at a very similar career stage as you. I am also of the opinion of
just applying a lot because at the end of the day that will help. I
mean, odds are odds. The more shots on goal that you take, the more
likely you are to get a goal.
And when we’re talking about grants, we’re not talking like you need 10
grants. You just kind of need a couple wins, and then you’re off to the
races. And so then you’re really operating in the range of noise where
increasing grant submissions is really going to help you there.
One piece of advice that I would say is that it’s really great if you
don’t need to write each grant from scratch. If you can recycle grants
that you’ve written or change them in some way or use the same
preliminary data, that will make this idea of applying to a lot of
grants a lot easier.
Because writing 10 new grants from scratch in a year, I know that there
are people out there who can do that. I am not one of those people
certainly. And so certainly the way that I have really helped was I had
a grant that I submitted, got feedback, didn’t get funded. I was like,
OK, now incorporate that feedback.
We have some new results. I can change things around a little bit, and
then we can send it off somewhere else. The other thing that I would say
is I think the process of writing grants is a great way of refining your
ideas. One of my favorite books on writing is called On Writing Well by
And he talks a lot about how if you are not thinking clearly, you will
not be able to write clearly. And I think the act of putting your ideas
onto paper, of trying to find the logic, of trying to order them, of
trying to think about the rationale—what is the significance—that’s
actually a really great exercise.
And so I don’t think it’s grant versus trying to move your lab forward.
It’s writing your grant and moving your lab forward. These two
activities are synergistic. The final thing that I will say is that we
worry a lot about money because money is obviously really important, but
I don’t think that writing grants can be all that you’re doing.
I like to think about the activities of your PIs, like you have this
stock portfolio and you have many different places where you’re trying
to move things forward. On the one hand, this is really stressful
because it feels like you have about 10 number-one priorities. To get
the lab up and going. You have to hire people, write grants, get papers.
But I think maybe another way to think about it is you want to be moving
everything in all of those areas forward a little bit. And if you are
finding that you are spending 100 percent of your time writing grants,
my suspicion is that that’s probably too much of your time. I don’t know
what the right percentage is. I know that 100 percent is too much.
And then the final thing I was going to say. One thing that I think has
really changed in the grant landscape is bioRxiv. And I cannot, I cannot
recommend enough preprinting your papers. In the old days, it used to be
you had a paper, you submitted it, and who knows when it was actually
going to come out? Well, I now know it will be 48 hours after I submit
it to bioRxiv it will be online and readable. And for new PIs trying to
show productivity, this is a really, really great way.
You want to get feedback on your work? Preprinting is a really great
way. You want to move things forward, help attract postdocs and graduate
students? Preprinting is a really great way. You want to learn more
about your field? Read preprints.
This has really transformed the way that science can be done. And so I
think this is something I think all young investigators should embrace.
And they can be cited anywhere where other research projects are cited
in your NIH grants.
There you go. Thank you. Sounds good. Full disclosure, though: Both
Olivia and Prachee are funded by NIGMS ESI MIRA grants. So just please
remember that when you’re applying for grants. Lots and lots of
questions. We’re not going to be able to get to everything, so we’re
going to eventually have to move to a lightning round pretty fast.
But I want to take a little bit more time about this one because I
thought it was really interesting and true. So here we have two
outstanding future leaders of science—I’m saying that, not you, but this
questioner also said it. How do you feel and how do you navigate being
in the faculty meeting room as the early career investigator, maybe also
female, how do you deal with the politics of that and the dynamics of
that? What are your thoughts? Since you’re going to be in charge one
day, say wait until I’m in charge and then you’re finished? How are you
thinking about that?
I would say practice. I think almost anything in science and related to
doing science can be practiced—whether it’s putting yourself out there
or speaking up in faculty meeting or doing anything that you think is
hard and maybe some part of some intrinsic property. You may feel like,
oh, I’m not like that. This is hard for me and it’s easier for other
people. I would say any of those things that you would put into that bin
is something that you can get better at with practice.
And so this is something that is 100 percent true for speaking up on
different things. So I am often the most junior person in the room for a
lot of different things, and it took me a while to train myself to
think, I’m here for a reason. I’m here because they want my opinion—and
that’s true for you in your faculty position too.
You’ve been hired for a reason. So they want your opinion, and it is
your opportunity and your responsibility to speak up in those
situations. And I understand people feel vulnerable, and I guarantee you
will get the advice to keep quiet until tenure, which I understand, but
I disagree with.
And I often find that when you train yourself your entire career to wait
until you’re forty-something years old to speak up that it’s not so easy
to turn that on like a light switch. You probably are not going to
magically transform into a vocal person. So I would say you can also
exercise that muscle earlier on, cautiously so, but you can definitely
make your voice heard. And you’re there for a reason and practice
speaking up. It will get easier.
I think that when you do that, I’ve found that making myself do that in
those situations, when I get into other situations where I’m not the
most junior person in the room, I worry that I’m a little overbearing
and over-talkative because I’ve flexed that muscle so often that it can
come across differently in different circumstances. But I would say that
you can do it, and you can get better at it, and I would take advantage
of your voice in that situation.
I completely agree with Prachee. I think anybody who knows me probably
professionally or personally knows that I am not good at staying quiet
when I see things, large and small, that bother me. And I think anyone
who knows me would also know I have a really hard time not wearing my
heart on my sleeve.
And I will be honest. Sometimes it can feel like I wish I could be more
politically astute, like somehow that would be better, but I’ve actually
sort of come around. I don’t think that’s true. I think one of the
things that I bring to the table is that I am really passionate about
this, and I do care about not just doing science but having science as a
field being a just field. That really, really matters to me.
And to be honest, at the end of the day, if, I may publish all these
papers, but I have done nothing to make science better, that’s not what
I want for myself. And I don’t want to be, to be fully honest, I don’t
want to be a person for whom that would be OK. So at the end of the day,
I feel like I just have to stay true to myself and the part of me that’s
like burn it all down. Well, if people don’t appreciate me, then maybe
they’re not people whose opinion matters that much to me.
Because I think that this is how we make science more just is by
speaking up, is by having people sit at the table and use their voice.
And one thing that I think about a lot, Manny Ares, who’s an RNA
biologist at UCSC, he once said that when you speak, it doesn’t have to
be perfect, but if you don’t speak, you’re not going to be part of the
conversation. And if we don’t use our voice, then our voices aren’t
going to be heard.
That is so true. Please, all of you listening, don’t listen to the
advice about not speaking up until you get tenure, because we need you
to speak up. I need you to speak up. The community needs you to speak
up. They just don’t want to hear the truth, so please do speak up. We’re
going to go lightning round fast now. Problems with personnel. What’s
your advice? You’ve got two people who don’t get along, someone’s not
meeting expectations, what do you do? Prachee.
That’s an impossible question. There’s no easy answer to this because
it’s definitely a case-by-case basis, but I think transparency is really
important, communication is really important.
Make sure that you understand; it’s very easy to make assumptions in
these sorts of circumstances, to not play favorites, things like that.
It’s really important to have transparency and open communication.
I also would say try to tackle it earlier. It’s a lot easier to make a
small change in trajectory than it is once you’ve gotten really off
course. Being fair, being transparent, being really transparent with
your expectations and giving feedback, both positive and negative.
Coming from a place of we’re trying to be better together rather than, I
think you’re wrong, do it my way. I think all of these things will help
make the problems, when they come up, smaller. And then sometimes it
won’t work out and you may have to fire somebody, and that’s OK. If you
have gone through this and that’s where you end up, then I think don’t
be afraid to do that either.
Last really quick thing is that it’s very common for people to be
conflict averse, but it is absolutely your job to resolve these types of
issues. So even though we all want to just think about the science and
not deal with personality issues and things like that, it is 100 percent
your job as the PI to make sure that you resolve these issues. So you
can’t sit it out.
Another thing we should be teaching in grad school, right? Boy do I wish
I’d learned that before I started my own lab. Took me 20 years. So lots
and lots of other questions.
I think, one more lightning question and then we’ll have time for your
big thoughts. What’s the one thing that you wish you had learned or done
before you started your lab? Or that somebody had told you? Olivia?
Oh man, it’s tough because there are so many things. I think one thing
that I wish I had internalized more was to believe in myself and my
capabilities a lot more. I look back and I wish that I had not been so
worried about failure, or about rejection, or about looking stupid, and
that stopped me from taking opportunities. I think I’m still learning
that lesson. We are not finished. But I wish I had started that journey
a little bit earlier.
That was a good one. Prachee.
I would say that we spend our entire training trying to figure out the
right way to do something, as if there is only one right way, and I
think that there are many, many paths to success. And I said it up front
that we can decide what that path is for us, and no one knows us the way
we do. And no one knows our potential the way we do and our unique
talents the way we do, and so we are best positioned to find that path
And so to have that faith in yourself that you can find that path, and
even if it doesn’t look like the way that you’re being advised to do it,
that again you are often rewarded for taking those initiatives to decide
those things for yourself, rather than punished for it.
Great. All right. I want to give you each…We’re going to run a couple of
minutes over, but I’m in charge so I can let that happen. Occasionally
there’s a use to being in charge.
I’d like each of you to just give a final thought, a minute maybe on big
picture. What should people be thinking? Who wants to start? Prachee,
how about you?
Sure, I’ll just say that just to conclude here, I know many of you still
have open questions, so I know both Olivia and I are on Twitter. For me,
that’s a really great way to get a hold of me. I promise I can answer
any question that way or reconnect with you again. So anyone can feel
free. I’m @PracheeAC on Twitter.
Somebody asked PI Slack, how do you…
So there’s a website. It’s NewPISlack.wordpress.com. You can just go to
the website. It will tell you how to sign up and things like that. I
think I’ve given a lot of my big picture ideas right there. And I would
say just don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone. This is
something that we, I think probably all of you, are familiar with
putting your toe in the water there, but every single day as my favorite
thing about this job is that every single day is a new learning
It’s always different. It’s always new. We’re always learning something
different. And so it’s…to take this job as yet another learning
experience. So we feel almost at every stage that, oh, I should already
know how to do this. I’ve been trained to be in this professional
But the truth is that no matter where you are in this career, no matter
how far advanced you get, you are always doing that part for the first
time and learning something new, so just to give yourself that break and
to say, “I’m still learning.” That will keep you open to learning new
things and learning new things from people who are younger than you that
have a lot to offer and learning from a lot of different experiences
that you’re going to come across.
And like I said, every single one of those things is going to be unique
to you. There are going to be experiences that literally no one else has
experienced that you’re going to come across. So there is no user manual
for any of those things. No one can help you with those things. So
you’re just going to have to learn by trial and error to just, like
Olivia said, have faith in yourself, and you’ll all do great. Best of
luck to you all.
Thank you. Olivia?
Yeah, I think actually Prachee and I came up with very similar
concluding remarks. So what I would say is I think becoming a PI and
starting a lab involves a lot of skills that you haven’t been trained
on, that are new aspects of the job. So now you’re being a manager. Now
you’re having to think about how to be a mentor, not just to one person
potentially, but to many people. How to think about budgets. There are
all these different aspects to it.
And I think if you approach this job as you are a student of it, you are
learning, and you are curious about how to do it better, and you are not
satisfied with where you are currently, I think these are all going to
really set you up for success. And what I always say to students,
especially about writing, is that where you are today doesn’t have to be
where you’re going to be tomorrow.
And in fact, I really hope that where we are tomorrow is better than
where we are today, because I don’t want this version of me to be my
peak. I like to imagine that my peak has yet to come, and in fact, I
can’t even see where I’m going to be because I’m so far away from it. To
reach that, you have to keep on learning.
You have to evaluate yourself. You have to be honest. And something that
has been really, really helpful for me is following people that you
respect on Twitter, hearing more about their scientific philosophies,
reading papers really, really broadly. You’re just trying to be greedy
for all the information you can get to become better versions of
And also read a lot of books. The business world has a lot of books
about how to be a manager. It turns out being a manager is sort of being
a manager. It doesn’t really matter what discipline you’re in, but why
not read those books. Some of them are sort of ridiculous, but they
might have a few pearls of wisdom that will make you a better manager.
So be greedy for those.
And I think also I would say at the end be kind to yourself. It’s OK not
to be perfect every day. It’s OK to make mistakes. That’s how you know
you’re learning. If you’re uncomfortable, that probably means that
you’re pushing yourself. Where there’s friction, there’s movement. I can
come up with a lot of sayings about this, but part of learning is making
And I think the most important thing is that any time you feel like you
didn’t do a good job, or any time you make a mistake, you use that as a
way to become better. And it’s always this sort of growth mindset.
I guess the final thing I’ll say is yes, as Prachee said, I’m also on
Twitter. I am @beascientist, which I clearly chose when I was feeling
very excited about science. But if you have any questions, please feel
free to reach out to me on Twitter. I’m also happy to make more book
suggestions on Twitter, probably more than we have time for right now.
But good luck, and it’s really been a pleasure and a privilege to have
this conversation with you today.
And I’ll say both their blogs are fantastic. I do urge you to look at
them. Listening to the two of you, I know things seem dark to all of us
right now with everything going on, but listening to the two of you,
reading all the great questions, I feel like the future is actually
going to be OK.
So thanks for everything you do, and thanks for doing this. And thanks
all of you for participating. I really appreciate it. And we’re going to
try to capture everything in the chat, and we will find something to do
with all these great questions.
Thanks so much everyone.
Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.
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