Gradual transitions to independence can help new faculty establish themselves in their field.
Guest contributor Viviane Callier
When Tak Sing Wong became a newly minted professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering at Penn State University in University Park, he realized he was walking a tightrope.
Maintaining a productive collaboration with his postdoc mentor was important, but he also knew he had to show his tenure committee that he was intellectually and financially independent.
Wong isn’t the only one facing this challenge. Many assistant professors struggle to establish themselves, and most universities provide little formal guidance for making the transition, though informal mentoring from more established faculty can help. Many young scientists have likened the process of going up for tenure to a black box. “As a new principal investigator, you are really starting over from scratch. It’s a different skill set” than that of a postdoc, says Dan Speiser, a first-year biology assistant professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina.
Still, many young academics have learned, by trial and error and informal mentoring, to establish themselves as independent investigators.
After getting the job, one of the first steps is setting up your own lab equipment and creating the basic infrastructure necessary to collect data. “It feels similar to moving out of your parents’ house for the first time – you have all the skills and desire for independence, but none of the infrastructure,” says Meleah Hickman, who became an assistant professor of biology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia in 2014.
Sometimes, junior faculty members rely on infrastructure from their previous labs to collect data. But that can be risky, some junior faculty tell Naturejobs blog. Continued collaborations with your graduate or postdoctoral lab can be problematic in the eyes of tenure and promotion committees, which want assistant professors to demonstrate that they can carve out a niche of their own. Some universities may even feel cheated if they hired an assistant professor who turns out to be nothing more than an extension of their former mentor’s lab, says integrative developmental biologist Alexander Shingleton, associate professor at Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Illinois, who has sat on both sides of the tenure committee.
Breaking those past ties, however, can be easier said than done. ”You don’t want to burn a bridge,” Speiser says. “You develop very good working relationships. It can be hard to give those up when you are expected to show your independence.”
Many new investigators transition gradually. Wong, for example, was able to take some of the grant money he had won as a postdoc at Harvard with him to his new job and continue collaborating with his postdoc mentor. The funding gave him some resources on top of his start-up funds, which allowed him to hire postdocs immediately (which he could otherwise not afford) and jumpstart his research.
The need to demonstrate independence shouldn’t rule out all collaborations, young academics say. Just be careful about how you handle collaboration, they advise. Collaborating too much can make it difficult for a tenure committee to recognize a researcher’s individual expertise and independence, they warn. Other drawbacks include the fact that large collaborations can result in poorly designed experiments because the group of investigators attempts to accommodate too many different ideas and goals into a single project. And sometimes, teaming up with senior faculty members as co-PIs on grants can make science more conservative than it needs to be. Requiring a senior faculty member to be listed as a co-investigator can cause a group of researchers to stick to ideas that have long lost their interest and novelty, notes one assistant professor.
But working with more established investigators that have complementary skill sets and a strong track record can increase the chance of winning a grant, for instance—a critical achievement for getting tenure. In addition, collaborative grants and research consortia attract more resources and obtain more buy-in from the community, which means that federal agencies are more likely to fund them. And it is possible to demonstrate independence in the context of collaboration, says evolutionary biologist Manuel Leal, associate professor of biology at University of Missouri in Columbia, MO, as long as it is clear what each investigator brings to the table in terms of ideas and technical expertise.
Viviane Callier is a freelance science writer based in Washington DC. She has a PhD in biology from Duke University.
Check out the other posts in the faculty series: