Trusting others

One thing that’s been hard for me in the first month or so of setting up a lab is letting go of being directly involved in all of my research. As a grad student and post-doc, I had my hands in everything that happened with my projects: I designed them (with input, but I designed them), I collected at least some of the data and directly trained any research assistants who were going to help collect the rest of the data, I analyzed the results, I wrote the papers (with input, but I wrote them). Now I need to trust other people to do these things, and it’s a challenge.

A lot of my peers felt this challenge first when they moved from being research assistants themselves to being grad students and post-docs. They talked about how hard it was to trust someone else to collect their data for them. This part was easy for me, though. I interviewed potential RAs and picked ones that I thought would do well, I trained them, I observed them collect data until I felt comfortable that they could do it themselves, and I checked in with them on a regular basis. I felt like I was still deeply involved and like I knew everything that was happening.

But running a lab isn’t like that. I haven’t even had to deal with this on a grad student/post-doc level yet, because I don’t have any of those. But I do have an awesome lab manager who is being awesome at doing things like acquiring things that the lab needs and finding ways that we can collect data at our new institution. On the one hand, it’s a big relief to be able to put those things on her plate and then not deal with them again. But on the other hand, they’re still rattling around in my brain, making me nervous. What if something falls through the cracks? What if something ends up being more expensive than I thought it would be and I don’t find out about it until after the money has been spent? (Side-note: I have neuroses around spending money, which I think I wrote about before. It’s not like my lab manager is just deciding to buy random things on her own without checking with me, just, it makes me nervous not to be doing all the money-related stuff myself.) I’m so used to needing to do everything for myself, it’s hard to really trust another person to do everything well, even another person who is very competent and has done a wonderful job with everything so far.

If others are reading and feel like commenting, how did you handle this part of the transition to faculty life?


The intangible benefits of investment

Over the last week or two, I’ve been noticing things that help me feel that my new institution is investing in me. A big one is my lab space, which was done incredibly well and was also ready for my lab manager and me to move into right at the beginning of the fall semester. A smaller thing is my laptop; my university gave me some money to buy equipment as soon as I showed up, so I get to type this blog post on a shiny new computer. A lot of the time when I use this computer, I’m reminded that my school gave me something because they want me to succeed. I’ll probably stop thinking of it this way eventually, and I know that all my warm fuzzy feelings will almost certainly morph into some kind of more balanced evaluation of this place at some point, but right now it just feels really nice to feel like my school expects me to stick around for a while and is trying to help me achieve that goal.

Lab managers are amazing

Or at least, my lab manager is amazing, and I am so very glad that I decided to hire her.

I have hang-ups around spending money, and I’m trying to be very conservative with parting from my precious, precious start-up funds. However, I did decide to use part of my start-up to hire a lab manager, and I am extremely pleased with that decision so far.

I did a pretty intensive search in the fall, which in my field is a very early time to be looking for a lab manager. There were a few reasons why I didn’t follow the traditional timeline: I had time in the fall to manage the search, I knew for sure that I’d be making a hire (whereas a lot of folks wait until later in the year to find out if they’ve gotten a grant or if their current lab manager plans to stay on for another year), I thought that posting an early job ad might help me recruit folks who knew what they wanted to do and had their act together, and I wanted to give the person I hired peace of mind (since they would know for the entire spring semester that they had a job waiting for them instead of feeling anxious about their future or scrambling to find a position).

I think I wrote a post earlier about decisions that I made quickly, like what color furniture to put in my lab, things like that. In contrast, hiring a lab manager was a decision I made with a lot of deliberation. I received about 60 applications, which seemed like a lot given that I’m starting a new lab and no one knows who I am, and also given that I did this search earlier than most other people. I interviewed six people, and I spent some time thinking about good questions to ask before I did the interviews.

The question that ended up being most helpful, and also most fun to talk about in the interviews, was asking each person to tell me about a project they wanted to work on in my lab. This showed me how familiar people were with what I do and separated applicants who seemed like they would excitedly and competently work on their own ideas from applicants who would just be good at following directions. This might be less important in a lab manager for an established lab, but I don’t have any students or post-docs right now, so I wanted my lab manager to work on their own projects and hopefully write papers with me in addition to doing the administrative parts of the job. I also told people in advance that I would ask this question, so I had a chance to see how they prepared.

Another question that was really helpful was asking people to tell me in detail about one prior research experience that they had — the one that was most relevant to my lab. All of the finalists had a lot of prior research experience, and I wanted to get a sense of what skills they had acquired without listening to a list of everything they had ever done. Asking them to pick the most relevant experience was a good way of streamlining their answers while also giving me a sense, again, of how familiar they were with what I do.

I also had a bunch of other questions — maybe about 15 total? The interviews lasted between 45 and 75ish minutes, and the biggest driver of the difference in length was what people had to say in response to the question about a project they would want to work on. The strongest candidates had a lot to say; they had thought about a project they would want to do in the lab, had interesting things to say about it, and engaged with me when I asked them follow-up questions. A couple of people seemed really good on paper but didn’t seem prepared for this question; they did things like tell me a research question without being able to articulate how they might answer it, or they told me that they would work on whatever research I wanted without proposing new ideas of their own. A big factor in my final decision of who to hire was the answer to this question; the person who got the offer had a well thought out idea that complemented my research nicely, and it was an idea I was excited to work on together.

After this whole process, I am very, very happy with the person I hired. After a bunch of years supervising undergrad research assistants, many of whom were doing research for the first time, I find myself surprised at how quickly my lab manager can get things done and how independently she can work. I mean, I expected these things from a lab manager, but expecting something in my head and experiencing it are not always the same thing. It is an enormous help to be able to tell her what needs to be done and then be able to rely on her to figure out how to do the thing. Especially when setting up a new lab, there are ten thousand small things that need to get figured out, and I really appreciate having my time free to do bigger-picture things. Also, my lab manager and I seem to click well interpersonally, which is always a plus.

It’s early days, so of course things might arise later that I’m not anticipating right now. But so far I am a huge fan of lab managers, and my lab manager in particular.



Moving is exhausting

A lot of things happened since last I wrote:

  • I had to say goodbye to a bunch of people I love in my old location. This was awfully sad, although also good, in the sense that it would be much sadder if I wasn’t sad to say goodbye to anyone.
  • I had to say goodbye to the place where I lived, by which I mostly mean my apartment but also the city. This was also sad, especially because this was the place where I had lived the longest — longer, certainly, than anywhere I lived when I was a child. It was also the first place to which I chose to move (as opposed to moving because my parents decided to move our family, for example), and the city felt mine more than any other place where I had lived.
  • An excellent team of movers packed up all my stuff and my partner’s stuff and very nicely moved it for us.
  • My partner and I dug ourselves out from underneath the many, many boxes that the excellent movers moved for us.
  • And we even hung art on the walls and stuff! The apartment is mostly put away now, which I think is pretty fast for most people (it took us two weeks of doing almost nothing other than moving), but made me very antsy toward the end. I was really, really done with all the clutter everywhere, and I think everyone is relieved that the time at which I hit my “I am done with this” point coincided pretty closely with the time at which the unpacking-and-putting-everything-away process actually got done.

So here I am, at a new institution and in a new city. Time for new adventures!


E-mail and sleep do not mix well

I used to find it relaxing to check e-mail before bed. There wouldn’t be anything there, or there would be things from friends, or sometimes there would be work things that I could ignore until the next day.

Trying to transition to a faculty position has shown me over and over again that checking e-mail right before bed is a terrible idea, but unfortunately that hasn’t helped me break that habit. Right now, I am awake an hour after I decided to go to bed because I found a lovely message in my inbox from someone who is trying to help me set things up at my new job. It really is quite a lovely thing that my colleague is doing for me, but seeing that e-mail at the end of the day made me feel overwhelmed by the amount of things that I need to do to have a functioning lab. So I’m still awake and feeling overwhelmed because I’m stupid about e-mail.

Is anyone reading this? If so, do you feel like sharing your e-mail habits/horror stories/strategies in the comments? I would love some blog company!

Choosing things

Here is something that I appreciate about my new colleagues: They affirm the choices that I’m making.

“You decided to have your office painted in such a nice color!”

“You should totally apply for that grant you’re thinking about applying for!”

“You made a great decision about where to live; that is a really nice area/building!”

Getting set up in a new place required a LOT of choices, and I’ve heard many new faculty (especially those setting up labs) talk about choice fatigue. I tried to avoid this by mentally categorizing decisions as “really important, need to think about this for a while” and “everything else,” and then being selective about what I put in the first category. When something went into the “everything else” category, I spent a few minutes thinking about what I wanted, picked that thing, and then moved on with my life. And sometimes I reminded myself that I was doing this so that I would have enough energy to deliberate about decisions that actually mattered to me.

Examples of things that went in the first “think about this for a while” category were decisions about hiring personnel for my lab and decisions about how to lay out my lab space (how many rooms, what types of rooms they should be, etc.). Examples of things that went in the second category were decisions like the following:
What color I should have my office painted (I *love* how it turned out, but ultimately, if it hadn’t turned out well, it wouldn’t have been the biggest deal in the world for me)
What kind of office chair I should get
What kind of dividers should go between the desks in my grad student office
Whether the seats and backs of the chairs in my lab should be the same color or different colors
Where on my desk the technician should drill a hole for my computer wires

(These are all actual decisions that I was asked to make at some point. Luckily I was also working with a fabulous architect, and many times I asked her to make a suggestion or two from a number of options, so instead of picking the best option out of 3.25 trillion I just had to decide whether or not I liked her suggestion. I did this because I trusted her judgment and because this made things infinitely easier for me; fortunately for me, research on decision-making also suggests that people are happier with their choices when they choose out of a few options rather than many options.)

There are also some decisions I spent too much time agonizing about before firmly escorting them from the first category, where I had mistakenly let them wander, into the second category, which is where they actually belong. Examples include things like whether a particular piece of floor space should contain a bookshelf or a filing cabinet, how many shelves tall the bookshelves should be, and how many phones my lab space should have.

This strategy of categorizing things and then deliberately spending most of my decision-making time thinking about only one of the categories may not be for everyone, but it’s worked well for me. And the way that I divided things up between the categories may not work for everyone, but so far it’s seemed to work out okay in most ways for me. Nevertheless, after making approximately 1.37 gazillion choices, it’s reassuring when my colleagues affirm that they think I have made a good choice. It makes me feel like I’m doing an okay job at something that’s brand new to me.


Things that help

Today was a day of me feeling incredibly overwhelmed, both by old projects that I’m trying to finish and new projects that I’m trying to get off the ground. I’ve done a great job so far this summer of getting my post-doc projects out the door (though I anticipate that they will soon come back to me with rejections, or at best revisions, so I don’t feel quite done with them yet), but then I hit on a snag on one paper that is slowing me down. At the same time that this is happening, I’m trying to get a new research program off the ground — a research program that is conceptually related to the work I’ve done before but is logistically extremely complicated to set up. And I’ve never done anything like this new project before, so it’s easy for me to feel overwhelmed and paralyzed and like I just can’t do it.

I’ve found a couple of things that help with that feeling, like (silly as this sounds) breathing through it and remembering that tomorrow is a brand new day when I won’t feel like this anymore. But today I also got some unexpected, and quite welcome, help.

I saw my first paycheck from my new institution. My new institution thinks I can do it. They think that so much that they’re willing to bet their money on it. What a necessary vote of confidence that was for me today!