Things that surprised me about having my own lab

Amazingly it's been three years since I started my own lab, which seemed like as good a time as any to reflect on the things that I didn't expect. Here are a few things that surprised me, which I share in case it's helpful to any of you.

How little time I have for science

As a postdoc I yearned for the time when:

  1. I could work on my own research projects
  2. I would have people to help me with my research projects so that
  3. I wouldn't have to do it all on my own

In reality my experience has been that

  1. I don't feel like I have any time to do much "actual" science, and when I do, many of the projects I work on have benefits (such as collaborations) that aren't directly related to the science I'm most excited about
  2. Supervising people takes way more time than I anticipated, and many times
  3. There are quite a few things I still have to do on my own.

In retrospect this isn't very surprising. Every one of the PIs I trained with would regularly take time to work at home, usually on a Monday or a Friday, and I can see why. I've had limited success with this approach but I'm hoping to get back to keeping some protected research time every week for projects I really care about.

The amount of time spent on non-science bureaucracy

I just mentioned time spent doing non-science things above but the bureaucracy really deserves its own point. Some of this is made worse by being at a medical school, but I also think at Wash U it's not as bad as other places.

In addition to the simple time it takes to take care of administrative tasks, there's a mental cost to bureaucracy that's a combination of task-switching (probably unavoidable) and me just getting really annoyed having to take care of certain tasks. Two examples from the past week:

  • I had some important campus mail that was delivered to Human Resources instead of my department mailbox. It took me one week, 5 emails, and eventually just walking over to HR to get it (which I tried to do originally but never happened). All of the individual people involved are really wonderful and helpful people, but somehow an hour of my week was wasted.

  • We had previously met with someone at the IRB about an issue and got a comprehensive list of answers about an upcoming protocol; this week we talked to someone else and got an entirely opposite set of guidelines. The newer guidelines make more sense, so I guess that's good, but we've already spent quite a few hours based on the previous advice which now has to be undone, not to mention the hour+ that setting up the new meeting took.

An hour may not sound like a lot of time, but getting back to my first point—if I have one hour, it's unusual, and I'd much rather spend it doing some science than tracking down a signature or filling out yet another form.

On a related note, I so appreciate it when people make it easy to act on something, by bringing me a printed form to sign (rather than sending me a link which I have to log in, download, print, sign, and mail) or asking direct questions over email. It's not just the 5 minutes of my time saved but the mental switching cost, which typically ends up being much more than 5 minutes.

How often my advice is not followed (not necessarily on purpose)

I remember as a graduate student and postdoc disagreeing with my advisors. At the time, and even more so in retrospect, I always appreciated the grace they showed in allowing me to have my own opinions. Now that I'm on the other side of the equation I have more sympathy for them. At this point I've been a scientist for over 15 years, and I have strong opinions about a lot of things based on careful observation and reflection. So, for example, if I request a change to a manuscript that I am 100% sure will improve it, it can be puzzling (and frustrating) when the next version of the manuscript is unchanged.

Part of my surprise is no doubt attributable to my own style—I can't imagine running a dictatorial lab, which I don't think is a pleasant environment, nor does it encourage junior scientists to think for themselves, which is an important skill (duh). The consequence, though, is that having my own lab doesn't necessarily mean everything is done "my" way, and I'm still working on finding a good balance where I can make sure things that "matter" are done to the highest quality while not forcing my personal style on everyone I work with.

Having a lab manual helps a little bit, but mostly because it helps me to not feel bad when I "remind" people.

How much I forget ("PI brain")

I have definitely noticed a change in my ability to keep lots of project details in mind. My solution is to try to write a lot of things down, and to encourage people in my lab to take responsibility for documenting what we've talked about and making sure I'm up to speed. I literally have no idea how people manage a lab without a lot of organization systems and software (more on this in a future post).

I was going to emphasize that my forgetting occurs mostly for student projects, but in fact, I also forget what specific experiments we've proposed in grants, and sometimes details of experiments we are currently running.

How long everything takes

It's taken about three years to get my lab to the point where we are now, which includes:

  • An organized filing/organization system for electronic and paper records
  • A system for recruitment and data collection (etc.) that works and seems sustainable
  • Grant funding*

* which could be a whole separate topic, of course...

Our first behavioral paper that was designed, collected, and analyzed entirely in my lab is under review and expected to come out in early 2016. We've scanned a few fMRI participants, but literally only a few—hopefully this will ramp up over the next 2-3 months.

So, even though I'm at a medical school and have had no lecturing or administrative responsibilities, and have worked my tail off, it's taken three years to make what I consider acceptable first steps in getting a productive research lab going. Amazing (not in a good way).

Again, some of this may be down to my own style and the fact that from the beginning I started a lot of complementary research projects; in the long run, I think this will pay off, and it fits with my personality. However, I suspect I would have gotten to data collection sooner if we had been focused on a single research direction, rather than balancing several.

(The flip side of this is that collaborators have been great, and there is a lot of new data collected at Wash U not in my lab that I'm really glad to be involved with. It's not that no science has taken place, just that my own lab's science has been slower to get going than I'd anticipated.)

Writing this I'm realizing there aren't a lot of positive surprises I've been aware of. This shouldn't suggest I don't like my job—there are a lot of great things about it: My lab is doing good work, even if it took longer than I expected to get there, and I have some fantastic collaborators and colleagues. I suppose it's heartening that these parts of the job didn't surprise me!