Managing People

Jan 23 2017 Published by under professionalism in science, Uncategorized

I saw a tweet about how illness shouldn't impact on PhD funding. It shouldn't.

But here's the conundrum. Let's look at Asst. Prof Young Scientst. Prof Young is about 3-4 years into her first job at some MRU. The joy and exuberance of Having A Job has receded into a haze of teaching and committee assignments and unsuccessful grant applications.

Prof Young has had a couple of meetings with her mentoring committee and the tenure advising committee. They think she's doing just great, for now. But, they remind her that 1) she needs to increase her publications and 2) she needs funding. She knows, and it's tough but feasible. She's on the right track, and it seems in her grasp.

Prof Young is nearing the end of her seed money, but she's been pretty wise and has enough to run the experiments she needs. The last proposal review was enthusiastic, but required more data to support the premise of the proposal. What Prof Young doesn't have money for is bodies. She's had a tech, and has enough money to support the Tech for maybe another 6 months to a year. She had a grad student, but the student left her lab for another lab. So it's her and the Tech. Maybe another grad student will come her way, maybe an undergrad. But she can't count on that.

Prof Young is a right-thinking person, of good intent and action. She had a discussion, several, with the Tech about what's ahead. She's explained the experiments that need to be done for the next grant deadline. So, when trouble comes, it is hard. Very hard. The Tech has an issue. Maybe a seriously ill child. Maybe he's ill, or maybe she's pregnant. Independent of gender, the Tech is asking for time off. Maybe it's only exactly what the Tech has earned. Maybe it's for more than that ("can I borrow against the future?"). Certainly, the Tech can't stay late to finish a running-over experiment. Or come in on weekends. In fact, the Tech now needs to leave early. Often.

Let's be clear the Tech is good. Responsible. Prof Young has watched techs be taken for granted, or even abused, and vowed not to ever be that person. Maybe there isn't enough money or time to hire and train a new tech. Maybe its just the leave to which the tech is entitled, with no extra problems attached.

But Prof Young is looking hard at a grant deadline in three months. Experiments that the reviews were explicit were needed. Skip a cycle? What if its NSF and once a year (some NSF directorates are, now)? What if Prof Young is looking at a mechanism that has an age deadline, and she's coming hard on that limit? Without a grant she will be out of funds for the tech, whose salary she is going to have to keep paying with what little is left of seed money.

What does Prof Young do? I think there are some creative solutions, but, dear gentle readers, please weigh in. I'm curious as to what you think.


31 responses so far

  • The New PI says:

    Ok, this is what she does
    - Prof. Young tries to convey to people in her lab the difficulty of the situation and the stress she is under, but they don't get it
    - As long as they work to the best of their capacities, Prof. Young would never compel them to work harder, so she picks up the slack and puts in 12-14hr days to get done what she needs done
    - Prof. Young reaches a state of severe burnout, but she finds a good therapist, ways to cope and keep going. She is elated when her latest blood tests are only mildly messed up, because she was sure her lifestyle was going to kill her and is glad her body is holding up.
    - Prof. Young's committee which is composed exclusively of men tells her that she has to think of herself most of all, so she looks long and hard at her funding situation and decides to hire another person thereby reducing everyone's survival including her own, but it's time to be a grasshopper, not an ant...
    - Prof. Young's colleagues are getting fired for not bringing in funding, so it's now or never
    - At this point, Prof. Young is seriously considering running for office because f*ck this s*it, the whole system is messed up...

    • potnia theron says:

      I think this is a bit sad. I appreciate the irony/satire, but it does contain a grain of truth. But... I'm looking for more realistic solutions that can help people in this situation.

      • The New PI says:

        🙂 It's ironic, but not satyrical. You post almost exactly outlined what has been happening to me and I replied with what I've been doing. Unfortunately, this is my truth. Still not sure if I'm running for office, but definitely considering doing some organizing.

        • potnia theron says:

          I am dreadfully sorry this is happening to you.

        • potnia theron says:

          I am dreadfully sorry this is happening to you.

          Do any of these suggestions make any sense to you?

          • The New PI says:

            They did, but I'm in a weird internal situation I will not discuss here, where I do not yet want to ask for support from the higher ups. Differently from your Prof. Young scenario, I have money to burn through in order to get data to try and get a grant. Whether I fail or succeed, I will reassess my situation...I feel bad I lashed out a bit, I've been trying to be a lot more mindful and centered in the New Year. It all about reducing stress, like is easy with everything else that is going on... 😉

  • someone says:

    I agree with the "picking up the slack part." That is what my junior faculty colleagues and I do. Most of us are already consistently working at the bench, since we don't have much teaching responsibility, though. Also, if Prof. Young has the ability to shift some funds around, perhaps picking up a part time tech would help. That way, she has some help, even in the absence of her regular tech.

    • potnia theron says:

      A part time tech is a good idea.

      And, whether there is slack or not, Prof Young is looking at more hours in the lab.

  • mzspectrum says:

    Sometimes it is a little bit hard to read your posts because unlike DM (trajectory of scientific workforce/careerism issues) that are important but abstract and long term, these posts are too close to home and bear immediate relevance. Good job.

    -Try to absorb additional workload on self at cost of sleep and personal health, with a defined time limit in mind. Apologize to loved ones. This is the first reaction of most people but obviously has drawbacks.

    -Hire part time help. per hour $, limited in scope.

    -Ask senior friendly PI at institution who works in related field (and has trained, reliable, and sometimes underutilized technicians) for assistance.

    -become @sshat PI, give up on promise to self to never become one of those people who treats scientific labor as replaceable.

    • potnia theron says:

      A couple of thoughts:
      1 - more work for the prof: highly likely, but there is a limit to this, too.
      2 - hire additional help, part time, student, whatever, as is possible.
      3- help from a colleague: this may be a good solution, but a rare one, I suspect.
      4- becoming @sshat PI may not be good for all sorts of reasons.

  • Anony says:

    I'd go to my department chair, explain the situation, and ask for more money. They hired you, gave you a start-up package, and presumably don't want to see you fail for a reason beyond your control. I'd ask for a specific amount, such as salary money to hire a new tech for X months, and/ or to extend salary support for current tech to the next grant deadline. It can't hurt to ask, and I know my department has helped junior and senior faculty in this kind of bind.

    • potnia theron says:

      I think this is one of the most feasible & highest likely return solutions. Chairs are by and large sympathetic to people who the mentoring committee/tenure development committee think are on the right track. The risk is that the chair will say "get rid of the tech, as is possible".

      Your advice about asking for a specific $$ amount is spot on. Go with a (relatively) detailed analysis, showing what you need and what it will cost.

      The biggest drawback here is to find yourself in the position of asking for a hand, one finger at a time (something said to me when I was in a similar situation). Make sure you do not sell yourself short. Ask for what you need. And justify it.

  • BatesPhysio says:

    In my experience, junior prof spends many, many, many hours in the lab.

  • becca says:

    Is the tech or prof doing anything inefficiently or suboptimally? There might be more productivity to be had in existing hours, it's always worth looking at- it just can be a managerial challenge to meddle without demoralizing. If the tech is good, assume you can make them great.

    Is the tech doing anything that can be outsourced? Glasswashing, feeding animals, running gels and making buffers, can often be purchased at the very low rate of a work study undergrad. Or maybe compiling papers and lit searches are taking up some of the profs time and that can be handed off, freeing the prof to help out in the lab more.

    Not that it helps anyone already there, but there is a good argument for outsourcing before trying to pick up the slack- there is always some ramp up time to get a new person on board.

  • Susan says:

    Been there, suffered through that.
    Prof. Young should talk to Program to see which experiments can really be eliminated, and what other mechanisms can be considered.
    If there are other techs in the department, is it possible to hire one of them for limited hours?
    Prof. Young should absolutely ask for relief from other duties, or consider a pause in tenure clock.
    Write review papers.

    • potnia theron says:

      Talking to program probably won't work. If its NSF, you have a chance. But NIH the folks who asked for more experiments and who will review the revision are not program. PO will listen politely, and then depending on how committed they are to Prof Young, will be sympathetic or not, but they are unlikely to be able to do anything.

      It may depend on *why* they want more experiments. Sometimes its just reviewer 3 being a jackass. But sometimes the reviewers have found a glaring hole in the justification/rationale for what is being proposed. Maybe they don't think Prof Young can do what is proposed and want more proof of feasibility. Look at *why* more experiments are needed.

  • odyssey says:

    What Anony said. Plus talk to the dean. The dean and department do not want Prof Young to fail. She's an expensive investment and it would be stupid to throw that away rather than sink a few more thousand into it.

    Having said that, some deans and department chairs really are that stupid...

  • A Salty Scientist says:

    This definitely hits close to home as a junior prof, having my group's productivity negatively affected for better (pregnancy) and for worse (serious illness). When you are already spread thin, it is a challenge for junior profs to work any harder. I did put the kids to bed and then go back into work, and work weekends, but I personally could only sustain that effort for ~3-4 week bursts during grant crunch time. I was very fortunate in that I did receive some local and private foundation funding that allowed me to stretch my startup. In the case of Prof. Young, I agree with the other posters to ask their chair and dean for any possible help (bridge funding, pausing the tenure clock, teaching relief). And at some point a young PI has to determine what lines will never be crossed, tenure be damned.

  • sweetscience says:

    Extending from one of mzspectrum's thoughts, would the funding mechanism allow Prof Young to add a collaborator of any kind, who may be able to get those preliminary data in exchange for a place on the grant (or even a future one)?

  • Ola says:

    Need more info to judge the specific case, but either way 3-4 years in and no funding yet, that's a BIG problem! Not even a small foundation grant? No internal pilot grants available? No co-investigatorships on other people's awards to cover a few % of salary? What were the startup funds spent on FFS? Last time I looked, startup packages at MRUs were anywhere from 300k to 1.2m, so not having even 30k to pay a tech seems like bad fiscal management. In addition, having a grad student leave "for another lab" also suggests personnel management issues, just to throw that into the mix.

    As others have said, as a junior prof you need your ass at the bench and then every other waking hour is writing grants. If you're not submitting 5-6 grants a year for the first few years, you're not doing it right. Yes it sucks! You have to teach, run a lab, manage people, do department politics crap, mentor people, manage money, write papers, and have a life outside the lab possibly including young children. In short, you have to be all of the things to all of the people. This is not new, this is part of the job and has been for as long as anyone can remember.

    So, PI should pick up the slack, cut back on needless lab expenses (pare down animal colonies, re-use antibodies, beg borrow and steal supplies), get real with the tech about being part of the team (e.g. can they work part time for less pay to eke out funds).

    • potnia theron says:

      Oye. Ola. I think there are folks who, in today's climate, don't get funding till year 4. I also think some of those small grants can run out quick. Internal grants are one way to go, to fill the gap, to hire someone else, to figure out a way to make this work.

      As for seed money management, for this case, let's assume Prof Young did it right. Maybe there was a lot of expensive electrophysio equipment. Maybe the animals aren't mice/rats, but more expensive large vertebrates (minipigs can run 1-2K$ each, with a 30$/day per diem).

      As for loosing the grad student. Could be management. Could be rats leaving a sinking ship, could be good riddance to someone who wasn't going to work. I try to not judge young PI's on this. Their world is hard enough.

      That said, I do agree that Prof Young has some hard choices about hard she is willing to work to make this go. That includes having difficult conversations with the Tech about what they can and cannot do.

  • Agree with odyssey and Anony on this one. A clear time to ask for help from the department.

    Ola, I think you are being a bit harsh. I know people (who ended up tenured) who didn't have outside funding 3-4 years in. People leave labs sometimes even if the PI is a good manager. Maybe the science wasn't a fit, and personality didn't enter in. Maybe they just didn't click. It happens. Bad luck it happened at crunch time.

    I agree with Ola's economizing on lab stuff advice, but I don't think taking it out on the tech is fair. A discussing about switching to part time is probably a good idea, but if the tech wants time off they are entitled to, or wants to stick to the hours they are actually paid for, I don't think that is a crime. People on the TT usually know they are sacrificing free time, especially early on. For the tech, it is job not a vocation. People shouldn't be punished when life things happen to them.

    • potnia theron says:

      The whole issue of how to deal with the Tech is hard. Having that discussion is hard. There is a line between babying a tech (of course you can leave 20 min early every day from now on) and being a Grinch in the hopes the tech will quit.

      Dr. Isis used to say: the hardest part of running a lab is managing the people.

      I may get a little easier as you get older, but its still a challenge.

  • Ola says:

    Yeah so I was a bit harsh (a long day yesterday!) but in my institution someone on the tenure track had better get SOME funding in the first couple of years. To be 4 years out and no grant implies there's something wrong with this person's strategy. Here, I've seen people demoted back to the research track in year 5.

    Regarding the final question Potty raises - skip a cycle? No! The only way to get grants funded is to submit them, and even if you submit knowing it is not your best, the feedback will be useful. Just get something (anything) in the door now, and in the mean-time work on making it better (this is a lot easier since the rules were eased on resubmission of similar aims). If you skip a cycle, that will make approaching the chair for help a lot more difficult. The words leaving your mouth might sound like "I didn't think it was ready", but by the time they reach the chair's ears they will sound like "I'm a special snowflake and I want everything perfect". Just get it out the door already.

  • Anon says:

    "A discussing about switching to part time is probably a good idea, but if the tech wants time off they are entitled to, or wants to stick to the hours they are actually paid for, I don't think that is a crime. People on the TT usually know they are sacrificing free time, especially early on. For the tech, it is job not a vocation."


    Also, don't techs have benefits? Aren't they covered by FMLA, etc? So matter how selfish you, as PI, want to be or think you are entitled to being, I don't think you can just cut someone loose when the arrangement no longer benefits you like it used to.

    • potnia theron says:

      FMLA is leave without pay, but entitled to a job to come back to. Part of the point of this post is to understand the conflicts that may arise by being, essentially, a small business operator.

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