TME Chat: That #NewPI life

This post is a new format for *The Molecular Ecologist: a group chat. Sometimes there are multiple TME contributors who have interesting takes on the same topic, and it’d be nice to hear from them all, and sometimes a conversation is better than a formalized essay. We’re trying this out with a chat about life as new PIs — two of the regular TME contributors are starting their second year as tenure-track faculty, and I’m about to start my first. So we got together on the TME Slack channel to talk about that #NewPI life for an hour. What follows is a transcript of our chat, lightly edited for clarity and grammar and with the odd hyperlink added for context. Enjoy!*
— Jeremy
Jeremy Yoder: Hi, everyone! The last year or so has seen some major career transitions for TME contributors — including, now, three new professorships. Stacy Krueger-Hadfield and Arun Sethuraman both started tenure-track positions in the last year, and I’m getting read to move to Los Angeles to start my own. So it seemed like a good time to round up the three of us for a chat about life as new PIs. As the newest one, I’ll mostly moderate and ask questions. Honestly, I want to know everything Arun and Stacy can tell me about getting started.
Let’s start with full introductions: your career stage, a little about what you do, scientifically, and the campus and department where you’re faculty. Maybe Stacy first?
Stacy Krueger-Hadfield: I’ve just finished my first year as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Maybe it’s surprising as Birmingham isn’t by the coast, but UAB has a strong marine contingent. It’s part of what attracted me to the job and why I applied. As an evolutionary ecologist, I’ve focused on seaweeds as models to test hypotheses on the evolution of life cycles and mating systems. Now, though, I’m landlocked for the first time in my life, so I’m using this as an opportunity to start working on all sorts of algae, from snowy peaks to freshwater rivers. I’ve not abandoned the sea! I’ve already had two big sampling “expeditions” to the west coast to keep the seaweed alive and well in the lab! It just requires a bit more planning than before. I’m also excited to have a new post-doc starting in the lab in September that will add an anemone to our host of organisms floating around in our growth chambers and to our questions about evolution.
Arun Sethuraman: I’m Arun Sethuraman, and I’m an Assistant Professor of Population Genetics in the Department of Biological Sciences at California State University San Marcos. I’m a computational evolutionary biologist, and I develop new statistical methods, software, and pipelines for studying speciation and population genetic structure. I still can’t quite place how fast this year has flown by, with numerous undergrads in the lab, setting up my wet and dry labs, juggling teaching with research, and managing grants. I’m excited to have my first two graduate students start in the Fall!
SKH: Yes, I second Arun! I have no idea how I got to July 2017, when it was July 2016 and I had an empty lab (no benches, no sinks, NOTHING)! Where did this year go?
AS: (I still have no benches, and I’m making do with makeshift ones, but VWR says they’re on the way! 😉 Lab renovations are quite the task…)
SKH: Yes, lab renovations are akin to climbing Everest I think! Believe everyone when they say it will take twice as long as you think because it will!
JBY: Ha, so this is literally the first question on my list — what’s taken up the biggest portion of your time in this first year?
Oh, and I should say, I start a position in the Department of Biology at CSU Northridge in a little more than a month. I do population genomics of local adaptation, especially in the context of mutually beneficial species interactions — I’m excited about the ways living things help and harm each other and shape each other’s history.
I have not even finished my HR paperwork, much less started to spend startup funds to get the lab up and running, so this is all new and terrifying for me.
SKH: I’d say it’s been an even split between grant writing, paper writing and getting the lab going. I only had to teach one semester my first year and as regular readers know, I taught a #SciComm course. While this took some time to prep last summer, it was really student led. The teaching gauntlet will come down in t minus 45 days! Then, I’ll need to balance the demands of teaching a course for the first time with everything else a #NewPI needs to worry about.
The biggest change and that has necessitated the most “getting used to the new normal” is how your time is no longer your own. Days have gone by where I look at the clock and see it’s approaching 5pm and I can’t really say what I’ve accomplished. There is just a set of new problems that you’ve never really had to deal with before and you have learn how to balance these new challenges.
I’ve received two grants (small ones, but every little bit counts). I’ve gotten several papers published, one that was started from scratch in my lab! And, the lab is all set up and has produced data for three papers that are in the writing stage now! One was assisted by a middle school student!
AS: The biggest portion of my time has been spent between (1) designing and teaching two new courses – one in population genetics, another in bioinformatics, and (2) learning the “system” and managing lab set up and renovations, (3) Mentoring 6 undergraduate students. Happy to say that (1) has yielded pretty good results (or so it seems from my course evaluations), (2) is coming along, with around 75% done (my dry lab is now fully equipped with 8 swanky new 56 core machines! Yay!), and (3) I’ve already published a paper with 2 of my lab undergrads!
Oh, and not to forget a (4) grant writing!!!
JBY: Whee, grant-writing! I am actually in the midst of writing a collaborative proposal to NSF right now, for my first CSUN submission, so I guess I’ve got that going for me.
AS: Fingers crossed for everyone! It’s grant writing season and I just submitted a USDA NIFA AFRI. Onto preliminary data collection for next year’s NSF DEB!
JBY: May the odds be ever in our favor.

(Hey, that GIF actually worked!)
But seriously SIX undergrads, Arun? How did you round up that many folks so fast? And Stacy, too: how have you been going about recruiting folks? How are you balancing the need to get people in to do stuff with the need to have things in place for people to work on?
AS: Ha! I have a hard time saying “No”, especially to motivated undergraduates. I solicited recommendations from other faculty to send me their creme de la creme, while also handpicking a few myself from my own classes. Fortunately for me, my research is largely computational, so I was still able to get students working on projects without much need for wet-lab renovations.
SKH: I’ve been picky with who to take on. My lab wasn’t set up and I wanted to get in there first to see what works. I have two rooms that were set up for wet lab, DNA extraction, pre-PCR and then post-PCR. As we do super high-throughput, I wanted to see if it worked (it does, thankfully!). I’ve had a high schooler since September, but two undergrads started in the spring and one middle schooler (rising high school freshman) has been in this summer. I also hired a recent computer science grad to get our genomic pipelines up and running for haploid diploid species!
The two undergrads found me and to a certain extent so did the high school and middle school student. I’ve been talking to prospective grad students, but wanted the lab set up and running before I took anyone on for MS or PhD.
I’d say I’ve not really had to balance lab work with teaching yet as I’ve not been teaching since the fall. That will change in the fall which is why I’m very happy to have my post-doc starting. He can help in the lab and get more undergrads involved with our research.
AS: I completely agree with Stacy – I am running a couple of interviews to hire a programmer and a postdoc on my NSF grant in the coming weeks. I’m hoping that will ease things amid all my other craziness.
SKH: I will say I spent way too much time designing a lab logo/sticker and naming PCR machines (ABI machines can be named!)! Actually, I’ve named every machine. For chemical inventory, we need to say where things are and one of my fridges was called Cutie Pie by the folks that do the inventory for you. That couldn’t stay like that! So, I named my PCR machines after field sites, my growth chambers after ferries I took across the English Channel as a PhD student and the fridges/freezers are still deciding on their names!
AS: Ha! I outsourced my lab logo design work 😛
JBY: Hey, I am eagerly awaiting the day I get to name my very own server, which should be soon. (I want to call it MAJEL, after Majel Barrett, who was the voice of the ship’s computer on Star Trek, as I’m sure you all know.)
AS: We’re building an HPC here at CSUSM too – so much fun science in the offing!
JBY: But so what’s been the biggest surprise in your first year? The thing you didn’t expect from anything mentors or new colleagues told you?
SKH: I’ll take the cup half empty first – the anxiety. It never goes away. I’m constantly fretting over this grant submission, this paper, how much this thing costs here vs there. Will I get this grant? Should I pay a tech? Did I lock the door (last night, it turns out I didn’t and luckily came back to lock it!)?
Cup half full – the friendliness of my department! Everyone supports everyone else and it’s a great feeling to have their support as I go about my daily routines! I especially was overwhelmed by their enthusiasm for my #SciComm course! I didn’t really expect that and it was humbling to have people I really respect praise the course. (edited)
AS: Oh boy. My biggest surprise/shock was going from being a postdoc to faculty – I feel like I had clearly conveniently ignored a lot of things (ranging from teaching responsibilities, service, money, politics) prior to now. Echoing Stacy on anxiety levels. At any point in time, I juggle about 20 different things (on a good day). That’s been quite the surprise.
SKH: Yes, Arun, the juggling 20 things. I was not prepared for that in anyway and was amazed at how quickly your time gets sucked up! I long for the PhD or post-doc days when I could do whatever I wanted all day! I had SO MUCH TIME! (edited)
JBY: Hah, I feel like the sheer busy-ness is the one thing everyone has been warning me about, but maybe there’s just no way to properly anticipate it ’til it hits.
AS: Yup. The feeling of never having enough time – that just never seems to go away. And from what I hear, it never does.
SKH: Time is my most precious commodity.
And, I’ve gotten a lot of offers to go here or work on this project and it is REALLY hard to say no!
AS: I’ve had several Twitter meltdowns, including this one which crowdsourced some real good advice:

Arun Sethuraman • @arunsethuraman • Fellow academics – how do you deal with extreme #newPI stress? I counted at least 36 things I need to do this week. — Twitter, Apr 9th at 6:08 PM

SKH: I’ve not melted down on Twitter, just behind my office door or towards idiot drivers on my way home!

So how are you coping? It does seem pretty clear that a good support system — online or offline or both — is a must.
SKH: Yes, a good support system is a must. This is the friendliest department I’ve had the pleasure in which to work. I have an excellent faculty mentor and feel supported by my peers that will be evaluating me as I progress towards tenure. I’m also fortunate to have an extremely supportive husband who understands sometimes I will have a meltdown buying milk! I’ve also got some pretty amazing parents. My mom came in the field with me on my recent Pacific coast sampling for every site. And, finally, some good friends. I’m lucky to have one of them here in Birmingham who shares my taste in bad movies and pizza!
AS: I honestly find myself spread way too thin all the time (pointing to the problem Stacy just mentioned – saying “no” is extremely hard). So I’d say that I’m getting by, rather than coping. It’s been quite the task managing my personal life on a tenure track – we didn’t know anyone in San Diego when we moved (but it’s been amazing to have my partner Zach with me all along the way), dealing with immigration, job searches for my partner, making friends, etc.
SKH: I think I go back and forth between feeling like I’m just getting by, coping, or like I’ve got this down … the I’ve got this down is usually followed by some crisis!
AS: Haha! True. Crisis control all the time!
JBY: Ugh, and I’m moving to LA single, with very mixed feelings about it. Though, that said, the department has been super friendly and supportive already, and I do have some good friends in town who aren’t “work friends”.
AS: Oh I am completely ignoring my amazing colleagues that are always willing to help. Example – I sought help from the Department to come sit in my pop-gen class and evaluate an entire week’s worth of presentations. Everyone overwhelmingly offered to help, even though it was the end of the semester!
You’ve got this, Jeremy!
SKH: Jeremy, you’re moving to a great school (though I’m biased) with some other newbies. That’s been nice here too … there’s three other new people at the same stage as me and then a few more folks a little bit wiser being a few more years down the road. Having some other people who know what it is like helps!
AS: Yes – there were three of us #newPI’s that started Fall 2016, with three more new colleagues joining us this Fall. It’s been amazing having a cohort that’s going through the same stress
JBY: Yeah, one of the many things that got me excited about the CSUN position is that I’ll be coming in as one of four new faculty this year, and there’s multiple pre-tenure folks whose scientific interests overlap a lot with mine. If nothing else I’ll have someone to go complain with whenever things get overwhelming.
SKH: That’s what I’ve learned also this past year is to talk to them … often we’ve found that we’re worried about the same things!
JBY: So this has already been a terrific chat, and I see we’re coming up on a hour since we started! Let me wrap up with one double question for the two of you: Going into your second year, what’s got you worried? And what do you think is going to be easier?
SKH: Worried: funding, but I’m accepting this will be a constant cause of worry. I’ve not landed a big grant yet, but have some in the pipeline. And papers, I’ve got too many sitting on the backburner.
Easier: I am not really sure. I had an easy road this last year with MINIMAL teaching requirements. My teaching load is by no means hard, but I will be teaching my first, real course this fall and teaching (hopefully) #SciComm again in the spring. So, I’m nervous about that, but the two other folks who teach Evolution gave me ALL their teaching stuff! It will be easier to make the lectures than if I had to start from scratch. And, I am excited about taking #SciComm to the next level after the successful beta test!
Oh, and the fact that we have bought our house (it has a pool, what luxury!) and it’s a bit of a drive from campus. I’m hoping that will enable me to head home and enjoy our tranquility and fireflies!
AS: I’m worried about getting some papers out, now that we’re up and running as a lab, and on getting work done on my current NSF grant, and on continuing to fund my students. However, I think that all of these should ease out over the year, now that I have a year’s experience, a couple of graduate students and a programmer. Additionally, Zach and I are moving to the city (San Diego), which should hopefully make things easier on work-life balance.
JBY: Awesome. So if I’m hearing the two of you correctly, I should be looking to minimize my commute but also make it long enough for some mental distance. Maybe I will do some apartment shopping in WeHo after all.

About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy B. Yoder is an Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, studying the evolution and coevolution of interacting species, especially mutualists. He is a collaborator with the Joshua Tree Genome Project and the Queer in STEM study of LGBTQ experiences in scientific careers. He has written for the website of Scientific American, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Awl, and Slate.
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