In our recent post on some of the most critical or embarrassing rookie mistakes you can make in the lab, we discussed how graduate students (and postdocs) can make the most of their new opportunities, and principles to take under consideration to stave off embarrassment or more work later in their careers. In this post, we take a look at new professors. What’s that, you say? New professors can make rookie mistakes? Absolutely! In many ways, transitioning from a laboratory apprenticeship, even as an experienced and talented postdoc, to starting your own laboratory and being a leader in research and mentorship is a very new experience. After years of being behind the bench and constantly looking up to a mentor, you are now the mentor and are responsible for all aspects of running a lab and executing research. It’s understandable that along the way, a few basic ‘rookie’ mistakes occur. Here are Labguru’s top five:
1. Continuing to work in the lab
It may be just yesterday that you were pipetting and plating in your postdoctoral lab, so there might be a natural inclination to keep going as a professor. And in the early days of setting up your lab, it may very well be necessary. Perhaps you’re continuing on with work you pursued in your postdoc, and would like to show certain techniques to your small cluster of students. Then there’s the equipment and other laboratory needs to set up, an often thankless and labor-intensive task. But continuing to work in the lab beyond a natural expiration date not only cuts into your other academic obligations, it might affect the productivity of your staff. Some people continue researching as a way to stay current on experiments or to build camaraderie with students and staff. Others have a hard time letting go and accepting their new role in academia. Still others enjoy benchwork and feel as though they can always have ‘one foot in the lab.’ But as time passes, new techniques are introduced and your research evolves, you’ll get rusty, and as embarrassing as it is, your students and postdocs will have a better handle on their experiments than you. Instead, hire a couple of experienced postdocs and/or laboratory technicians that can be strong experimentalists and take younger students under their wing. As a professor, focus on the larger picture - creating projects, mapping out major research and experiments, and troubleshooting.
2. Not setting social limits with students and staff
It may not feel like you are a professor. After all, just a few months ago, you were a postdoc. You might even be close in age to your postdocs and even graduate students! While it is tempting to want to be the cool, friendly professor that is friends with their lab, it’s a recipe for disaster. You must establish social limits from the beginning, including how and when you socialize with students, especially in your own home. This includes exercising extreme caution about whether to engage with students on social media, such as Facebook. Maintaining bottom-line authority will go a long way towards enforcing work ethic, troubleshooting, resolving personnel conflict in the lab, and will ultimately help earn the respect of your lab and peers.
3. Too many committees (and commitments)
We have blogged extensively about the stress and obligations that young professors face in the early days of their career. You will be responsible for teaching at least one class, applying for grants, moving into your lab and establishing a research project. As if this isn’t enough, as a junior faculty member, you will be expected to sit on several departmental committees. While you might not be able to avoid compulsory appointments, avoid volunteering your time to too many groups, activities and committees. Remember, tenure comes down to funding, publications and at some Universities, teaching reviews. Especially in your first year, manage your free time carefully to be able to ease into your schedule and duties.
4. Overlooking health and rest
In addition to not overscheduling your time, it’s really important to take advantage of what little down time you do have to recharge and take care of yourself. There is no question that the early years of establishing a lab are some of the most stressful. Chronic stress can have many deleterious effects on health, including heart disease, depression, ulcers and many other chronic illnesses. You will be far more efficient and effective in the lab if you feel good. Join the gym on campus to make sure and exercise regularly. Take time away from the lab to explore your new city. And don’t underestimate the importance of getting enough rest.
5. Not organizing on DAY 1
Our advice for professors is the same as it is for post-docs and graduate students: Organization is the key to success. Laboratories grow in an exponential manner, in everything from personnel to projects to paperwork, specimen and reagents. You can quickly transition from having everything organized in a couple of binders to feeling overwhelmed by the sheer influx of unfiled data and samples scattered around the lab. If you can establish project and research management tools for your lab from the get-go, you can do more science in an efficient and cost-effective manner. Applying for grants, organizing your classes and important documents, publishing papers, communicating with managers and students, knowing what everyone is working on and their progress, even overseeing inventory and biological collections, will be seamless and pain-free. Well… almost.
Professors and about-to-be professors, do you agree with our list? Do you have any other mistakes to add based on your experience of being a new professor? We’d love to hear from you! Drop us a comment below.