Things Nobody Told Me about Being a PI - Part 1

You may be able to do 50 mini-preps in an hour, or prepare next-generation sequencing libraries like nobody’s business, but there are several skills that are essential for running a successful lab for which no prior training was provided.

OK, so you have had a productive post-doc, published some nice papers, maybe even secured some independent funding.  Then the almost unthinkable happens, your hard work pays off and you secure at tenure-track faculty position at the research institute of your dreams.  YAY!  This was my situation about 6-years ago.  It was fun, exciting, daunting, challenging, and exhausting all at the same time.  All of you aspiring PIs out there by now have a reasonable idea of what the expectations are as a junior faculty member (beautifully laid out in detail in Simply Blood posts last year from Dr. Eric Pietras;  Pretty simple right – publish good papers, secure independent grant funding, mentor trainees to be useful members of the scientific community.  But this post is not about those things you already know.  This is about the stuff that nobody tells you about when you are starting up your own lab.  Things I never thought to ask when I was interviewing.  Maybe I was naïve, but there are a lot of skills you need to navigate your new lab that you don’t receive training for during your post-doc.  This series of post is to help bring these issues to light, and help the next generation of PIs be better prepared for all the other “stuff” that goes into running a successful research lab.

During your post-doc training you will have no doubt mastered virtually all of the lab techniques you need for at least initially setting up your new lab.  You may be able to do 50 mini-preps in an hour, or prepare next-generation sequencing libraries like nobody’s business, but there are several skills that are essential for running a successful lab for which no prior training was not provided.  There are a few things in particular that stand out from my personal experience.  The first thing is financial management – things like how to propose a grant budget, knowing what expenses can be paid for from different accounts, what is the indirect cost rate allowed by different Foundations.  This is something I was completely unprepared for.  I went in just thinking that as long as I have the funds to cover the bills, it doesn’t matter what source trainees get paid from or what grants are used to cover specific expenses.  This was a steep learning curve!  I had a lot of back and forth with my financial office as I got used to figuring all this stuff out.  And unfortunately, there really is no kind of mentoring for this, it really was learn on the fly on the job.  Hopefully, you are fortunate enough to have a very receptive financial office and grants management specialist to help guide you through these nuances.  But this is something you should get accustomed to ASAP, and the sooner you learn what Foundations allow which expenses and how easy it is to move money between budget categories the better.

Another thing that is initially overwhelming and not entirely obvious as you start your lab is the amount of administrative responsibilities that come with the new position.  While I was prepared for writing animal ethics protocols and environmental health and safety approvals, there is a lot of other “stuff” which can become a strain.  These sentiments were echoed by Dr. Mick Milsom (Division of Experimental Hematology, German Cancer Research Center);

“One of the things that I wasn’t prepared for was the mountain of administrative work that seems to appear on my desk every day.  Not tasks directly linked to our science, rather things such as approving purchases, signing off on employee travel and training, acknowledging staff absences and holidays etc. etc. etc. It really surprised me how much time I could burn each day trying to keep on top of this sort of thing. It took a while to learn how to take full advantage of my admin support with regards to what can be delegated and what can’t, as well as building systems to organize when and how you are going to organize such tasks.”

To follow on from Mick, it is important to establish systems to deal with these tasks efficiently, and to find out what jobs can be delegated.  Although many of these requirements will seem mundane, it’s not all bad – I have come to really enjoy some of these administrative responsibilities such as sitting on graduate student thesis committees.  

Back to the unexpected bench research dilemmas, something that you might think you are prepared for is outfitting your lab with scientific equipment.  But in hindsight, I could have saved some precious start-up money and foregone buying certain pieces of equipment. Here is an example of this experience shared by Dr. Jennifer Trowbridge (The Jackson Laboratory);

“One particular example that stands out was how to outfit my lab equipment and supplies when I started. It wasn't entirely clear to me to shop around and negotiate pricing. I also thought that I should have all of the equipment in place immediately. In hindsight, I would have saved a lot of time and money by starting off with only a few key pieces of equipment (PCR machines, water baths, etc) and waiting to purchase larger pieces of equipment until knowing what exactly I could borrow/share with other labs.”

Before you go all-in and buy a benchtop flow cytometer, you should ask around other labs to see what is available that can be shared (you might be asked to chip in to cover part of a service contract or something), and take full advantage of existing expertise and equipment in core facilities (which often give discounted rates for membership to certain organizations on campus like NCI-designated cancer center members). And although this is really difficult, you should sit down at the start and really plan out your first projects and try to forecast what the critical bottlenecks might be in terms of equipment.  As an example, something I have seen new faculty requesting as part of their recruitment package is a sequencing machine for their lab as next-gen sequencing becomes more commonplace in all elements of biomedical research.  While this might not necessarily save a lot of money in terms of reagents compared to submitting samples to core facilities, the real advantage is reducing the turnaround time in return of data (which may take 4-8 weeks depending on the workload of the individual core facility).  The pace of research can be improved dramatically if the data is in your control.

I would like to thank Dr. Michael Milsom and Dr. Jennifer Trowbridge for their comments contributing to this blog.  Stay tuned for Part 2!

Grant A. Challen, PhD
Assistant Professor
Washington University School of Medicine


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