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?

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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.