Tuesday, March 10, 2020
“Keep Your Job, Ken!” Part 1: Getting Started
The first installment of the “Keep Your Job, Ken!” blog series will focus on transitioning from a postdoc to a professor and getting your lab up and running.
1) Before leaving your postdoc, wrap up as much of your current work as possible. Do your best to part on good terms with your advisor because, hopefully, they will support and advocate for you in the future. However, other than being another line on the CV, do note that papers produced during your postdoc do little to nothing to help you with your independent career and can steal precious time from your already overwhelming assistant professor schedule. You may be invested in a project/paper, but a cost-benefit analysis will indicate that it is better to hand off those projects (and first authorship) to someone else before you leave. Also, as I will describe in greater detail later, you need to differentiate yourself from your advisor as soon as possible.
2) If it’s an option, arrive early to your new institution and get settled in well before your first semester starts. Any move is a major life-disrupting event. But it could prove substantially more chaotic if you move only a week before teaching your first class and starting to work with graduate students. Just thinking about that amount of stress makes me shudder. Even if you are not getting paid and/or don’t have a purchasing budget to start your research it is worth taking as much time as you can to settle in (e.g., spending time in your office, setting up your home, finding a grocery store, etc.) before your formal schedule kicks in (i.e., classes, committee meetings, orientation, etc.). If you are lucky and have a budget, you can even start placing orders.
3) This one is obvious: ramp up your research as fast as possible. Hitting the ground running maximizes your productivity faster and that additional time at peak performance can be a critical boost to pre-tenure success. Framed another way, the faster you get up and running the more time you have to make mistakes, recognize failed/promising research directions, and make adjustments accordingly. If possible, avoid relying on or agreeing to a renovated space because the renovations will inevitably take twice as long as originally outlined. If renovations are necessary, fight for a temporary space where you and your students can work in the interim.
4) Once you’ve accepted a job offer, immediately start generating a purchasing list that includes the names and item numbers of everything you might need. This should include the big items—that will ultimately involve seeking quotes and negotiating prices—as well as little things. Some of them are obvious (i.e. 50 mL round bottom flasks, solvents, lens/mirrors, post holders, etc.), but others not so much. Like that stupid little connector piece between the vacuum and the Schlenk line (see image below). What is it called? What size is it? What company makes it? How do you find it in a catalog? There is nothing more demoralizing than spending hours at your desk finding an item, purchasing it, and once it arrives finding out it is completely wrong. This will inevitably happen to everyone but hopefully you can minimize the amount of time you spend and the number of times it happens. It is much easier to recognize what you need when it is in front of you instead of trying to envision it in an empty hood/bench. My advice is to walk through your postdoc lab and write down the name and part number of everything that you may need in the future. Taking pictures of a setup you like is also helpful.
5) Place orders for large equipment right away but make sure it’s done correctly. Ordering, processing, delivery, and installation can take several months. For many new assistant professors this will be their biggest rate limiting step. Most institutions require items costing >$5,000 or $10,000 to go through a time-consuming process like bidding. This will likely be handled by a purchasing office that is not nearly in as much of a hurry as you are. If you are not particularly attached to one brand or model or the one you want is the least expensive among the competitors, then the process may move faster. Alternatively, if you know exactly what instrument you want, and it has unique features, then a Sole Source Justification—a process in which you justify why the instrument you want is unique and required for your work—may be your better option. Here is an example Sole Source Justification form from FSU (pdf). Keep in mind that the justification is being written for someone who is not an expert in your field and most likely not even a scientist. Through trial and error, I have learned:
· The three lines offered to justify the purchase on the FSU form are not enough. If you’re justification space is similarly modest get used to writing “see attachment.”
· Get at least three quotes from the most well-known suppliers. This shows you have done your homework and will allow you to show them how the item you want is clearly differentiated.
· Ask the vendors for advice on how to write the sole source. They regularly fight the same battle and know the pros and cons of their competitors. It should be detailed but not so detailed it looks like the vendor wrote it because the other vendors can challenge it.
· Request a successful Sole Source Justification example from senior colleagues. Ask for their advice as well since every university handles this process differently. For example, at a private institution the restrictions are much looser and a three-line justification might be enough. Alternatively, public intuitions like those in Florida have to adhere to Sunshine Laws and that prompts a more rigorous process. If you email me I’d be happy to share an example of a successful sole-source justification. Unfortunately, I can also share an example of an unsuccessful one.
All in all, take time and do a good job on your Sole Source Justifications. It’s demoralizing when, weeks or months later, a justification is rejected by the purchasing office or challenged by one of the alternative vendors. Not only is this a delay but the rejection can also trigger additional, time-eating bids and negotiations that can add months to your wait.
6) Get your website and social media presence online ASAP. Your website is the world’s window into your research group. It is a crucial tool for recruiting postdocs, graduate, and undergraduate students. Equally important is that it may serve as a source of information for article and grant reviewers. After all, the NSF’s two-page biosketch, for example, only tells you so much about the qualifications of a PI or co-PI.
There are multiple approaches for producing a website. One strategy is to learn HTML and design your own from scratch. That is what I did and, while I am not going to say I regret it because I learned a lot, it did take more time than I expected. Another possible drawback to this approach is that a DIY website can end up looking a bit…amateur. But one plus is that by controlling the formatting you can hide Easter Eggs like a Kanomi Code (try plugging it in while visiting the Hanson Research Group page). Another more cost-effective strategy is to opt for a user-friendly template and fill in your content (e.g., wix, site123, etc.). Alternatively, if your university offers support services for website design you can take advantage of them. Or, it may even be worth paying an undergrad with web design experience to create your page.
Setting up a Twitter, Instagram, and other social media accounts is much easier and will be an important channel for publicity. When a new paper is published you can quickly use a tweet to increase its visibility. Quick note: if you tag the journal, they will also usually retweet it to their followers. Also, follow my group on Twitter and Instagram (@HansonFSU).
7) Everything will go slower than you would like so pick and choose your battles. From the day you arrive on campus you are going to be excited, motivated, and ready to take on anything and everything. However, things like getting an ID, setting up a purchasing account, getting quotes, actually making purchases, major/minor renovations, instrument training, etc. will most likely take longer than you want. The reality is that, regardless of how much time you’re willing to put in, most of the logistics will rely on staff who are already overburdened with day-to-day work and rightfully do not want to work nights and weekends. While your task may seem quick and easy, it may be the 81st item on their to do list. Therefore, my advice is to be patient and pick and choose your battles. Do not be the assistant professor who cries wolf and demands that everything needs to be done ASAP. If everything is equally the highest priority, then everything is also equally the lowest priority. However, if you contact someone once and say “I realize that you are busy, but I am in a hurry and I would really like your help with X.” chances are that it will get done quickly. But if you do that every time, especially with things they know are trivial, then you have officially become that pain in the ass colleague that no one wants to work with. The bottom line is that your coworkers are people and if you rub them the wrong way don’t be surprised if your requests/purchases/emails get back-burnered behind someone they like who treats them well. With that said sometimes you do have to push hard but aim to do so in a diplomatic way.
8) Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are people who can help with everything from purchasing to finding a good doctor and dentist in town. While there can be a fine line between needing help and pestering, often you will find that your senior colleagues are happy to hold court and share their wisdom with you (present blog post included). Given the importance of setting up your lab as quickly as possible, don’t be afraid to ask to borrow hood space, instrument time, tools, etc. before your lab is up and running. Those extra few weeks/months of active work can make a huge difference in producing preliminary results for early proposals. Think of it this way, the department has made a large investment in you and most will do everything they can to help you succeed. Worst case scenario they say no. But from my experience that is rarely the case. With that said, if they say yes, don’t damage anything and if you do offer to pay to fix it. Also, read the room and don’t overstay your welcome.
9) Be nice to the support staff. First, do this because it’s what a good person would do. You and your colleagues can really tell something about someone’s character by how they treat the people that “serve” them. This is sometimes referred to as the Waiter Rule. Second, if the staff like you and you show them respect, they are far more likely to help you and do so in a timely manner. Finally, treating staff well is good for the health of the entire department. As I will expand upon in the management section, how people are treated at work directly affects their productivity, retention, number of sick days, etc. more so than any other factor (e.g. salary, benefits, vacation days, etc.). Long story short, check your ego at the door and treat the people around you well.