What was the most helpful advice I got when starting my group? There is no answer to that question because, like most of my colleagues, I didn’t get any. I got the keys to the lab, a nice pub lunch, a PC, a small amount of start-up money and a seat in a shared office in which the most commonly used word was “fuck”.But while there is no disgrace in lying for comic effect, I should confess that, in reality, I did get two pieces of advice. One was a not-so-helpful recommendation to never become a PI in the first place because it was hard and getting harder. The other, much more helpful recommendation was to read Kathy Barker’s book At the Helm: Leading Your Laboratory. It is thorough and thought-provoking, and covers the whole spectrum of the academic experience from situations you will have considered to those that you will never have imagined (and hopefully will never be in).
In the absence of any further second-hand advice to pass on, here are the key things I had to learn the hard way:
Learn to say no
New staff represent a brilliant
opportunity to offload unpopular lectures, roles on health and safety
committees and other rubbish no one else wants to do. Do not unwittingly
take on busywork in an attempt to be popular with the cool kids;
otherwise you too will end up having to dump it on the next generation.
If you do say yes, do it well
Being a safe pair
of hands is a valuable skill. If you can be trusted to deliver something
tricky, you will raise your profile in the department. But be aware:
competence can lead to an even heavier workload.
Get some top cover
From providing lab space and
access to equipment, to mentoring and speaking up for you on promotion
committees, you need someone senior to look out for you; find someone
Build a brand
A dirty word in academic circles,
but important. It’s a big and competitive world, and being known as the
expert in a particular area or technique will lead to collaborations and
Recruit the right team (for you)
I am lucky
enough to have a fantastic team. But picking the wrong people will lead
to a toxic lab culture that will sink you. The first person you recruit
sets the tone for the rest of your career. Get experience of
interviewing by being on recruitment panels for colleagues. Think very
carefully about the process, particularly the questions you ask and what
characteristic they actually probe. Then choose your recruit very
Toughen the heck up
You are going to fail, often. Even well-established PIs fail. It is part of the process. Learn methods to deal with it.
Be a tiger
Remember that you earned this position on your ability; try not to let impostor syndrome overcome you.
Academia is tough, but there are good bits: don’t forget to enjoy them.
This first appeared in the Times Higher Education on 8th September 2016