New faculty share their experiences on their transition in the first of a new series on being part of the academic elite.
Being a member of a faculty means being a lot of things all at once, according to assistant professor Mike Lee, who became a member of the team at the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Massachusetts (UMass), Boston in late 2013. “It encompasses lab vision, grant writing, and the organisational tasks of your lab. You’re also your lab’s head postdoc, lab manager, technician and the EHS [Environmental Health and Safety] adviser. And you teach.”
Clearly, science has moved on from single-minded lab work: being university faculty today certainly doesn’t mean burying yourself in research and not having to worry about anything or anyone else. What really struck Brian Kelch, assistant professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology, also at UMass, when he started his faculty position in 2012, was how quickly he needed to adapt to the more personal side of the job.
Kelch made sure to be prepared for the people-facing aspect of lab management after he realised how much of his time would be spent dealing with personality conflicts. “My wife came into my office one day and said ‘where’s your box of tissues?’ I said I didn’t need a box of tissues – I use paper towels to clean up a mess. She said ‘They’re not for you! They’re for your students when they come into your office crying.’ I was completely caught off guard.”
People management is far from the only challenge in this role, however. The elements of budget management, negotiating the best deal for their start-up funds and research, and submitting grant proposals to funding institutions are something few new faculty members have any experience in. For Lee, negotiating his start-up package was a particular sticking point. “I felt that every department chair was way, way better than me at negotiating,” he says. “I had a bottom line number I had come up with on what I could accept, and it would take every chair about two minutes to find that number.”
Another big challenge for Lee was transitioning to the extra responsibility as a faculty member. “You have to continue being what you were as a postdoc but on more projects and without the infrastructure that you benefitted from.” Assistant professor Wen Xue, who joined UMass in September 2014, agrees. Help from others – particularly when sharing a lab – was invaluable, Xue says. “It’s like Kindergarten – we get looked after. If we were left alone in a lab it would be like leaving the kids home alone. But now we get great teachers.” Xue says without advice and help from more senior PIs he wouldn’t have survived the transition. “They advised me to not buy expensive equipment I could get by without and to save every penny to pay for postdocs or reagents. I’m still using Phil’s microscope.”
Phillip Zamore, professor of biochemistry and molecular pharmacology at UMass Medical School (and proud owner of a rented microscope), has been a faculty member for 16 years. His most important piece of advice to young faculty members is to follow their passion. “Stick to the things you are crazy about and get help to make the outside world understand why it’s important, rather than trying to find a supposedly important problem and trying to adapt yourself to it.”
Further on in this series, we will investigate the topics of people-management in the lab, budget management, negotiation and grant proposals in a lot more detail, along with other relevant and important subjects for faculty members. Stay tuned to read the things that matter to you and your career, straight from the people who’ve been through the process before.
Check out the other posts in the faculty series: