Congratulations! On the enthusiastic recommendation of the faculty, the University of Your Dreams is pleased to offer you an appointment as an assistant professor of chemistry.
You did it! All those years of hard work—college, summers in the lab, the graduate school grind, paying dues as a postdoctoral researcher, the intense job hunt—have paid off. Here are the keys to your very own lab. You are officially an independent scientist.
If you read the fine print, you’ll notice that we also expect you to be a fundraiser, a manager, a teacher, and a mentor. In addition, our students may call on you at any time to serve as a counselor and confidant. There will probably be tears—some could be yours. There will be curveballs—hopefully none land in your lab. But we also promise triumphs, big and small, and the opportunity for tremendous personal and professional growth.
Are you ready for all that? Great. Get to work! The tenure clock is ticking.
Every freshly minted assistant professor is acutely aware of how lucky they are to finally be in the job they’ve worked so hard for, one where they get paid to pursue their own ideas and nurture the next generation of chemists. In any given year, only 80 or so of those academic positions open up at research-intensive schools in the U.S., and securing one can feel like winning the career lottery.
But whether it’s hesitancy about being in front of a classroom or worry about developing the right leadership style, no one walks into an assistant professorship feeling confident about every aspect of the job. Even the lab, every scientist’s comfort zone, can start to feel foreign when laden with the pressure to balance a budget, manage multiple projects, and publish.
Since summer 2016, C&EN has followed three chemists—Northwestern University’s Julia Kalow, Cornell University’s Song Lin, and University of California, San Diego’s Valerie Schmidt—as they navigated their new jobs at competitive research institutions. What follows is a chronicle of their frustrating, exhausting, rewarding, and gratifying first year.
Learn everything, all at once
Sitting at a coffee shop in Evanston on an unseasonably warm June morning, Julia Kalow mapped out everything that had gone into arriving at this moment. She had arrived at Northwestern just days earlier, but the planning for her new lab began months ago—pretty much from the moment she accepted the job here.
If Kalow felt any major stress over this next big step in her career, she didn’t show it as she settled in with her coffee. Prone to pull her longish brown hair back into a ponytail and favoring khakis and solid-colored tops, Kalow was decidedly at home with herself, a quality that would prove helpful as she navigated her new role.
— Name, title.
As she walked through how she planned to get her labs going, she laughed at the predicament of the new chemistry professor. This sink-or-swim course in teaching, people management, and fundraising is daunting but manageable if approached in an organized, measured way. For Kalow, that’s all about keeping an eye on the long game. This is just the first year. The progress she would make now was important, and she had goals for herself, but Kalow also knew she would make mistakes. In moments of doubt, she and another newish academic liked to text one other, “No regrets,” a two-word reminder that no one is perfect at this job.
After the glee of securing that coveted assistant professorship comes the reality that there’s so much work to be done. A personal website advertising your research needs to go up. Budgets need to be made. Labs need to be designed and renovated. Grad students need to be recruited and postdocs hired. Class syllabi need to be created. All of it needs to be done pretty much immediately.
It all starts with the blank slate that is your lab. Almost immediately after hammering out the details of the start-up package, that pot of cash provided by the university to keep your research going until you can pull in grant money, your new employer will want to start renovating your labs.
As a postdoc, Valerie Schmidt started making lists of all the equipment she regularly used and made notes each time she ordered something. “Okay, we order from this company, and this is the price they gave us, and here are the sales reps,” she says. “It’s basically about being as organized as humanly possible and using Excel and making tab upon tab upon tab.”
Before officially starting at the University of California, San Diego, Schmidt made several trips to visit her new labs, which at the time were still occupied by another group. Although she could see the skeleton of her space and had thought carefully about what she wanted, “it’s like a giant game of chess that you have to play blindfolded,” she says.
“You think you’ve done a superb job, and then you get into the space for real and look around and say, ‘Actually, I change my mind,’ ” Schmidt says.
Kalow and Schmidt both had what they hoped was a leg up in this first year: As graduate students, each had joined labs run by professors who were just starting their independent careers. Kalow worked with Abigail Doyle at Princeton University, and Schmidt with Erik Alexanian at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. That experience gave the researchers unique insight into what to expect when starting a lab, warts and all.
Still, watching it all unfold is different from being on the other side of the desk, where everyone is looking to you to make each decision and to put out every fire. It is impossible to be completely prepared for the start-up process.
“You go through so many years of education and following people’s instructions and then don’t really get eased into the professor position,” says Lauren Buchanan, who started in August as an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University.
As a spectroscopist, Buchanan needs stringent conditions to support her delicate equipment. Almost as soon as she accepted the job at Vanderbilt, she was faced with questions from electricians and engineers that she simply hadn’t considered. “I was like, I don’t know, the lab space has always been here. Do I care what type of light bulbs you put in?” she laughs.
And then there are the delays. Even the most organized professor cannot control the sometimes maddeningly slow pace of lab renovations. Song Lin arrived at Cornell in July to a sizable group: Three undergraduate students and two postdocs had already signed on to work with him. Lin’s newly formed team immediately rolled up their sleeves to transform his empty labs into their new home.
But waiting for an inspection and certification of his fume hoods meant no actual experiments could be run until mid-August. “It was pretty frustrating. We finished setting up the labs in three weeks and then were just sitting around doing nothing.”
Rationally, new professors know that a few weeks or months of delays are a blip in what they hope will be a long career. But keeping that perspective in those summer months—without real labs, without classes to teach, and with a “group” that might be just you and your thoughts—can be tough.
Those hiccups lead to unsettling down time. Although Kalow was reasonably comfortable not having her own lab space after arriving in mid-June, figuring out how to feel productive as July turned into August, with an undergraduate and two graduate students now in the fold, was tough. “The first month, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d sit there and read or think, and I had a lot of meetings with students because what else are they going to do?” Kalow says.
As Hosea Nelson, who is now wrapping up his second year as an assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, puts it, “You wish there was a Magic 8-Ball on your desk that you could shake and tell you what to do as a professor.”
Those weeks and months of feeling adrift are soon forgotten when everything finally comes together. The first time Schmidt walked into her new labs, she had what she describes as the first of several “Lion King” moments. “When Mufasa is like, ‘Simba, everything the light touches is our kingdom,’ that’s kind of how I feel when I open our lab door. All of this is mine!” she says.
That delicious sense of arrival is soon tempered with the knowledge that ownership can be onerous. Yes, it is the professor’s name in lights when a project is a huge success, but it is also the professor’s problem if equipment breaks or someone has an accident in the lab. And until grants come rolling in, those start-up funds are shrinking rapidly. Running her first experiment in her own labs, Schmidt found herself mentally calculating how much every last chemical costs.
Keary Engle, thriving in his second year at Scripps Research Institute California, remembers arriving at his labs—sparkling clean and completely empty—and feeling momentarily overcome with doubt. “There’s a voice in the back of your head going, ‘What did I get myself into?’ ” Engle says.
Building a team that can help you get everything off the ground is a constant preoccupation. In the months leading up to their arrival on campus, new professors pore over the files of incoming students to decide which ones to target for their groups. They have lofty goals of how many graduate students they’d like to add—goals that might not jibe with the actual number of new students focused on their particular flavor of chemistry. And they contemplate whether to integrate other experienced scientists into the mix.
No issue is as polarizing for new professors as the decision to hire—or not hire—a postdoc in that first year. Everyone they talk to wants to offer advice on the subject. “I’ve met people who say, ‘Yes, right away, it’s the most important thing you’ll do. It’ll make your career,’ ” Schmidt says. “And then I’ve met people who say, ‘No, you are the best postdoc you’ve ever had.’ ”
Many agonize over the choice. A new lab doesn’t just run itself, and new professors are keenly aware that a postdoc could take on a lot of tasks that would otherwise fall to them. Ideally, the person they bring on will be responsible, have a good work ethic, and generally set a positive tone for graduate students to emulate.
But new professors fret over how a postdoc will shape a nascent and fragile group culture. Ominous tales passed down from experienced faculty warn of a bad hire poisoning the atmosphere of a lab.
At a more fundamental level, many new professors are simply not convinced great researchers will want to join a team that has yet to be established and might take some time to hit its stride. Schmidt paraphrases an old Groucho Marx quote to explain her hesitancy: “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”
It’s a valid concern. The minute news of their appointment hits, unsolicited applications from postdocs crowd their inbox. At top schools, where it’s no secret that new professors have plenty of start-up money, they might get four or five résumés a day.
Yet the publications a professor amassed as a grad student or postdoc only hint at the direction their new lab will take. Getting applications from people wanting to join before the doors have even opened makes freshly minted professors suspicious.
Kalow had been tentatively filtering résumés over the summer when a candidate who was too good to pass up fell into her lap. He had originally reached out to her Northwestern colleague William Dichtel, who didn’t have room for the researcher and passed his application on to Kalow. She leaped at the opportunity to bring on someone who normally wouldn’t consider a young lab.
Getting résumés from senior colleagues is a strategy many new professors employ to improve their candidate pool. Another tack is to cultivate a good network of relationships during interview season.
Scripps’s Engle tapped a graduate student he had been impressed by while visiting University of Chicago to join his new lab, a move he says had a transformative effect on research in his first year. Of course, convincing the student to come to La Jolla, Calif., took a full-court press involving not just Engle but also Engle’s big-name colleague Phil Baran.
The allure of jump-starting his career outweighed any concerns Cornell’s Lin had with getting the wrong postdoc. Lin’s first two postdocs arrived in Ithaca just weeks after Lin got to campus. “I don’t know whether this is going to pan out well for me, but I’m willing to take the risk and see,” he says. “I’m a chemist. I do experiments.”
He rationalized that his time would be split across so many responsibilities that having an extra set of steady hands in the lab would be the only way to get preliminary data that first year. Lin’s biggest worry was that the wrong addition would set a negative tone in the lab. A postdoc who might need more training but was trying hard was okay; someone who was lazy and set a bad example for the graduate students was not.
Lin had an advantage: As a Chinese native who did his undergraduate degree at Peking University, he had a network of academic contacts in China that better equipped him to assess Chinese candidates whom other professors might overlook.
With the help of his postdocs, Lin was squarely focused on finally testing out his own ideas in the lab. “Hopefully by the end of the first year, I will not necessarily have publications but will have something I know I’m going to be publishing,” he says. “That will be my goal.”
Schmidt, meanwhile, had no plans to hire anyone anytime soon. “Until I’m a little more established and I start getting folks because they know my chemistry and want to be a part of it, I’ll probably hold off.” She pauses, adding that, of course, there are exceptions to that firm stance. She’d take someone from one of her previous groups in a heartbeat and would have to entertain a fantastic candidate if one dropped in her lap. “I’ll probably change my mind eight times a day.”
How will the start of the school year change life for the new professors? Tune in tomorrow to find out.
Did you hire a postdoc your first year as an independent researcher? Were you a postdoc in a new lab? Tell us your war stories in the comments.