It takes a village to raise...a tenure-track professor?

Sep 27 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

I used to be fiercely independent, and not in a good way. Like, delusionally so. I just figured I could do everything myself and that my way of doing things, even if that "way" had no basis in experience or knowledge, was probably the right way. Over the course of the last few years, however, I learned that there are, in fact, people out there. People with information! Information that might actually make your life easier. It's mind blowing, really.

Never in my life have I embraced the existence of all these people more than I am right now. I'm actively seeking help--from NJU's grants liaison, from my program officer, from one of NJU's HR reps--and accepting help when people make themselves available to me, which thank Jeebus they are. Does it fill my days with meetings, phone calls, and endless email strings? Yes. Does it mean I don't begin working on my grant until 5 pm every day? Yes.

But very slowly, I can feel my toes starting to sink in and grab the soil, here. I am no longer incredulous that I might one day arrive at work and find a lab, with people and equipment in it, and real science being done. That day is still a ways off, but my first major equipment purchase has arrived, and I am in fact interviewing candidates for a lab tech tomorrow! After all, somebody's got to [help me] put the new equipment together.


25 responses so far

  • My advice--unless one is doing a fucketonne of mouse genetics and needs an experienced tech to set up matings, genotype progeny, etc--is to not hire a tech until you have a good post-doc to supervise the tech. Because the amount of time it takes to supervise a technician is not time you can afford.

    • Dr Becca says:

      What *good* post-doc would join a lab that didn't have anybody or anything in it?

      • You obviously won't be competing for the same post-docs as the ones joining HHMI labs, but you can definitely hire good post-docs as a n00b. The first three post-docs I ever hired generated tons of beautiful data, and each of them published at least one first-author paper in highly-respected journals, even some IF > 10. If it weren't for their efforts, I wouldn't be where I am now.

        The way you find such post-docs is (1) applicants who are rejected by the labs of senior colleagues in your field or former mentors or (2) post-docs already at your institution who have to leave their current lab for funding reasons.

      • chall says:

        hm, I think I would've done that for my first post-doc if the research and the PI seemed interesting and good to work for. That said, I've had little to none involvment from techs in the labs I've been in (partly since I've been independent and not good with delegating, partly since the techs had their own projects and weren't there for the post docs...) so I might be partial?!

        Not to mention that it can be very stimulating to be part of a smaller lab with a PI as a post-doc since you can be very independent and being more close.

  • Joat-mon says:

    I completely agree with CPP, the cost of hiring a tech vs a postdoc is marginally different in $ amount but a good postdoc could be far more capable than a tech. I wouldn't trust a tech to put together anything for me. It is really scary when someone thinks he/she knows everything. I was told repeatedly that "you are better off not hiring anyone than hiring someone crappy" – it could be huge time and energy sink. Three strategies:
    1) share a good, experienced tech with the lab next door, at least for now.
    2) if you do want to hire a tech, look for someone young and fresh, with some experienced, but going to med sch in a year to two. Those people usually are very hard working, motivated, and willing to learn and accept new ideas.
    3) do everything yourself and wait until you have students/postdocs in your lab. Students will be coming to your way, assuming your visibility on campus is not an issue. Call/email your buddies to see if anyone in their labs are graduating. Send out advertisements (a pdf file) to the graduate program at all major universities if you are desperate.

    BTW, you have to recognize that people+lab equipment does NOT = progress. They are essential elements but they don't add up to results in a linear fashion (i.e. sublinear).

  • Mark B. says:

    I think hiring a technician first is the right thing to do - you have someone in the lab who can deal with vendors, deliveries, etc so your feet aren't nailed to the floor - you have to go to meetings and teach after all - and when you start running new experiments you can train your technician alongside you while you're doing it. (Dr Becca hits the nail on the head re getting a postdoc - it's very difficult to attract good postdocs to a new lab and having a less-than-good postdoc is catastrophic. Also they will, appropriately, not want to do lab management tasks.)

    An outstanding technician (a recent university graduate that had worked in the lab of a friend of mine) got me through my first year as an assistant prof without my suffering a total nervous breakdown.

    • The technician can be helpful if they are trained and have a fair amount of experience, but if its a fresh faced noob they have no idea how to do stuff and thus you have to spend a lot of time training them.

      As far as the difficulty to attract good postdocs to new labs, it can be difficult but not impossible. Besides its nice to have a postdoc in the lab that can set the tone for research and help the tech troubleshoot when they hit a roadblock.

      I'm in the camp with CPP that putting the tech before the postdoc is like putting the cart in front of the horse.

      • Mark B. says:

        I think it probably depends on the type of lab; if there are standard, cookbook bench procedures that are the same in every place, then hiring an experienced person (tech or postdoc) can be a useful jump start, vs teaching a newbie how to pipet. But techs do so much more than perform bench procedures and a new assistant prof will be figuring out how to do things (ordering, dealing with vendors, setting up new equipment) alongside them. These are things a new postdoc shouldn't be doing (unless their intention is to stay with the lab for the long haul in a research associate capacity). And even if you hire someone who has experience with your experimental protocols, you're going to have to watch everything they do the first couple of times anyway, so the time investment isn't much different than doing it yourself and having your new tech watch and gradually learn to take over.

  • Jason Snyder says:

    I've only been in a couple labs (as a student/postdoc, never as a PI) but both labs had techs with a quality I would look for, namely anal retentiveness. Everything got done and was done right, with records in place. Even though they had many responsibilities outside the lab, and often couldn't do a full day's worth of work they got the essentials down and kept the lab running smoothly so students and postdocs could do the experiments. This doesn't speak to whom one should hire first though...

  • Fred says:

    The 1st post-doc you hire doesn't have to have an identical skill set as you do. In the beginning, I hired one with a good skill set with the capability of learning what I know over time, but we worked synergistically in the lab together. More recently, I hired someone with a skill set more on par with my skill set, and this person also has experience in other techniques new to my lab.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    CPP is high as a kite on this one, always has been. I will make some allowances for lab specifics but I'm skeptical. But *particularly* for your work, you need a tech. Newly graduated, maybe thinking of going to grad school, some prior lab experience. These folks work out great.

    As stated above, a bad postdoc is way more of a disaster than a bad tech.

  • But techs do so much more than perform bench procedures and a new assistant prof will be figuring out how to do things (ordering, dealing with vendors, setting up new equipment) alongside them. These are things a new postdoc shouldn't be doing (unless their intention is to stay with the lab for the long haul in a research associate capacity). And even if you hire someone who has experience with your experimental protocols, you're going to have to watch everything they do the first couple of times anyway, so the time investment isn't much different than doing it yourself and having your new tech watch and gradually learn to take over.

    This is all completely wrong in every particular.

    And just to respond to DickeMonkey: yes, this varies depending on your discipline. *As I already pointed out* if you are working, e.g., with an animal model that requires a large amount of repetitive lightly skilled labor that must be done on an an ongoing continuous basis--such as mouse or zebrafish genetics--then maybe it does make sense to hire a technician with demonstrated existing skills in the relevant tasks. But if you are doing shit in flies or Drosophila or tissue culture or microorganisms, or using rodents for physiological or behavioral experiments (but not real genetics), then you are wasting your money and time hiring a technician before you have a post-doc in the lab to (1) supervise the technician in performing the tasks that support the post-docs experimental efforts and (2) generate shit for the fucken technician to do.

    As soon as humanly possible, you should get yourself away from the bench and into your office where you belong, and populate your lab's benches with post-docs and grad-students. In today's funding and publication climate, you are making your life much harder than it needs to be as a PI to waste your time at the bench. It is a very low leverage use of the PI's time, which should be better spent on high-leverage activities such as reading the literature, writing grants, attending conferences, delivering seminars at other institutions, etc.

    • drugmonkey says:

      On the latter point CPP and I are in complete agreement.

      The only question is how to best reach this state given your scientific approaches.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I should also make allowances for the recently-graduated undergraduate population sucking ass in your location. Perhaps this explains Pp's experiences and advice. Our potential-tech pool is excellent so that may explain my good results. Ymmv.

  • Joat-mon says:

    One thing to consider though - techs/postbacs are not eligible for NRSA, most fellowship and training grant.

  • WestCoastNewb says:

    As my chair told me when I started a couple months ago, everyone has a different opinion on tech vs postdoc as first hire.

    I decided to go with the tech. One with lab experience, who will be taking a couple years off between undergrad and grad school. As others have stated, recruiting a quality postdoc as a new assistant professor is difficult. Also, if you start out with a postdoc you will have them doing all sorts of quotidian tasks better suited for a tech -- unpacking, making stocks, setting up stations.

    While that's my reasoning, I have to admit it was a very stressful decision.

  • Dr. O says:

    I'm going with a tech first myself, mainly based on the advice of my mentors (thus people very familiar with my work/field/situation). I'm sure there are benefits to either model, many of which are mentioned here. Probably the most important thing is to make sure you're (we're) set up to do as CPP and DM suggest - get out of the lab and into reading/grant-writing/networking/etc. as soon as possible.

    And I'm totally with you on the village. I can't imagine receiving too much help right now.

  • Mark B. says:

    Of course new profs need to reduce their time at the bench as soon as possible - but I think it would be a colossal mistake to allow a new postdoc to oversee all data collection and staff training in a new lab, as CPP suggests. (Unless the new prof has somehow gotten a job without acquiring any technical skills themselves.) *You* have to set up your new laboratory, establish the culture, make sure that the data being generated are valid, protocols and SOPs are being followed, because the buck stops with you. It's not possible to do that without spending at least a moderate amount of time in the lab. It's true that this takes away from time that could be spent writing grants, networking, etc, but this is why junior faculty don't get much sleep.

  • drugmonkey says:

    One thing to consider though - techs/postbacs are not eligible for NRSA, most fellowship and training grant.

    Which is exactly why you use *your* (startup) money to pay for a tech. Easier to go hat in hand to the local Training Grant to secure a postdoc slot once you've found a postdoc than it is to pay for your postdoc now and then go looking for money to support a tech.

  • Here's my two cents as a non-PI, non-tech graduate student. I've worked in labs where there were tech / lab managers overseeing the lab as well as where there is a RA overseeing the lab. Prior to joining my current lab, I would've there is no difference btwn a experienced knowledgable tech vs a PostDoc. I now disagree.

    Our RA is 100% involved in the research of our lab, s/he knows everyone's area of research intimately, having undergone the process of obtaining hir PhD knows what is required for successfully getting through comps and the graduation process. Most importantly she knows how to train us graduate students to be awesome scientists. S/he knows how to get us to make that leap from being told what to do to being independents scientists. How to critique a paper, how to ask questions, trouble shoot etc. I'm sure there are amazing techs that can do this but my experience has told me that the Post-Docs have an intangible quality that will be invaluable when it comes to training students

    .I've worked with 6 post-docs, not including our RA and 3 of them have been rock stars (all the women incidentally). The most recent post-doc that I worked with with nothing short of amazing and she would've worked for anyone that was willing to take her as she was a trailing spouse. You never know, you may luck out in that way as well.

  • OSM says:

    I am also a new TT-asst. prof and I can relate. I finally have all of my equipment in the lab and I hope to make some progress soon. I have 2 graduate students and I just hired 1 RA.

    I decided to go with a more experienced RA because I need a lab manager that could gett the equipment up and going, manage the lab, take care of the students, oversee the ordering/finances, and perform experiments. I feel a bit overwhelmed right now with everything that comes along with being "new" - so the choice to have an experineced RA/lab tech has taken alot of pressure off me.

    The only downside is that you must pay out more for an experienced RA. I think it's worth it though.

    Now I can work on my grants!


  • Dr Becca says:

    Thanks for all the comments, everyone! It's interesting to me how strongly people seem to feel, and I can only imagine it's based on personal experience, which is of course differs for each of us.

    My training--grad, and both post-docs--has all been in labs with a core of excellent techs. They knew how to do everything, where everything was, and had good relationships with all the animal people and key admin personnel. I can't imagine how much less smoothly life would have been for me and the other students and post-docs without them. Because the labs ran so well like that, I want to re-create that on a smaller scale for my lab.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    It doesn't matter if you go with a post-doc or tech as your first hire, as long as it's a good one. A bad hire is a bad hire-and it will wreak productivity! Go with your gut, all else will be fine. My second technician is magical! We are close to getting our first paper out-and that's very exciting!!

  • I decided to hire a postdoc when my lab was getting set up. It turned out to be a big mistake as he couldn't think for himself, couldn't troubleshoot anything, and wasn't even able to order the right consumables. I eventually had to fire him. The amount of time, energy and money I lost trying to train him really hurt productivity in my lab. Am now looking for a tech to get shit moving again and am also about to hire another postdoc. Fingers crossed that it goes better this time.

  • Dr. Cynicism says:

    I offer no advice like all the commentors above, because if you take it and I'm wrong, you might not want to be my bestie anymore. Also, I probably don't know what the F I'm talking about. All I can say is that I'm happy for you and your progress! It sounds like things are progressing nicely -- you'll be kicking science in the ass very soon 🙂

Leave a Reply