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Wow, that is very scary. I am 1/6 of the way through my first contract with UT. A good time to look back on what I have done, what I haven’t done, what worked and what did not.

Grants

This has got to be the biggie – the main concern, the main activity and the main source of waking up with cold sweats in the middle of the night. My paper record is reasonable for this stage of my career (32 papers; ~22 first-author), and I am tenure-track, which in my case means I have 3 years to get a grant. I have publishing expectations, but not contractual obligations. However, my ability to feed my son depends on grants (and to think I turned down a hard money job…).

It sounds like a long time… it is NOT a long time, especially as the lag between submitting and funding is generally at least 9 months. If you get revisions and decide to resubmit, you are looking at more like 15+ months. My K99 took nearly 2 years as I had to wait until the end of the funding cycle for a decision. Then I lost it… showing how precarious grants can be as well. So, if my next grant took as long to come as my K99, the ‘winning’ grant would have to be submitted within the next 2 months, to keep my contract. Scary.

My aim is to submit one NIH grant every cycle (3 cycles a year) and to hit as many alternatives as possible (foundations / internal UT funding / begging under a bridge). I have no qualms about my funding NOT being from NIH. I understand that that is most prestigious  and most beneficial for the departmental (huge indirect , but I am more concerned with just being able to get some Science done. I have the support of my Department Chair & Dean in this.

I got 2 NIH grants in – I actually aimed for 2 in case I missed the February deadline due to the arrival of young Samuel. I got in a K-12, which while using NIH funds, is administered through UT, so I already know that I did not get it. Boo. I also submitted a DP2 (stop sniggering Stella), the new NIH Director’s New Innovator Grant, which takes nearly a full year to review. In addition, I submitted one small pilot grant, through an institution (Baylor College of Medicine) with some colleagues I have made since arriving here (i.e. it is very new collaboration). Waiting to hear (hopefully very soon on this one).

Well… I am glad I was productive. I think 3 grants in a new place, all of which count as data collection grants (not secondary data analysis  which are somewhat easier to put together) counts as productive. 2 reflect new collaborations (the pilot grant with Baylor, the K-12 with UT Med school). And I will always believe that when you are junior, just the process of writing and submitting a grant is useful. But, I think I didn’t make the best choices.

My mistake was not going for grants which could be resubmitted. The K-12 I am not resubmitting because my teaching load starts soon, and is not compatible with the training and research demands of the K-12. The DP2 doesn’t have a revise and submit option. Given that last year the finding rate was under 3% for the DP2, and this year they are likely to have more applicants, but the usual NIH cuts, I have actually just written that one off. So, here is the thing: at the end of three rejected grants, I feel like I am back at square 1.

OK, not square 1, because all the benefits apply: I have shaped my intended research program somewhat, I have discovered my passions, improved my writing and learned how to make a budget (I had actually never done one of these before!). I can navigate fairly speedily through the vagaries of UT’s IRB, COI and IRiS (grant submission system) fairly smoothly. So, I guess I am ahead, but not where I would like to be, which is with some comments in hand and a grant ready to resubmit.

One of the problems with the DP2 is that it is an unusual grant format, and we have no templates for the submission, so it took a lot of time, for what I am anticipating being very little payback.

I actually find being 6 months in, and no grant on the horizon terrifying, but I try not to think about it to much, and try to act on it. So, a game plan:

*Keep submitting, submitting, submitting. Recall the American Heart Association at their Early Career Day:

“Grants Don’t Go The Smart” [we are all smart] “Grants Go To The Persistent”.

*Try to get into established groups, and work with established people. I think I was naive before: I thought that I could just come up with a great research idea and pursue it, solo. I am more and more pessimistic that that is possible: I think you have to grow your idea out of a secure base before you can run with it. You may have all the skills necessary, but NIH still want to see small steps in the progression to your idea. I look back and I have won lots of awards, but always, at about the end of a three-year study period. And I always struggled at the beginning. I see getting a grant as less like drawing a picture, and more like growing an orange: you have to plant the seeds in well fertilized soil, nurture them, water them, tend them, watch them grow, and then, then all that is done and the tree is strong, you will get your orange.

I have not given up on some of my grander plans, but I am focussing on smaller more logical research steps and building my other plans more slowly: as I built my behavioral genetics reputation (sadly going – sob – it is my favorite thing) over a 3 year PhD, then I built my lipoprotein work over 3 years. For both of areas, I didn’t feel respected until the end of that period (and nor, looking back, was I remotely competent). So, as I move back into BG and move into cognition and obesity, I am planning to fund myself on other projects, and slowly ‘work-for-free’ producing papers and building a research base.

It’s still scary.

Papers

Eh. I really miss writing papers. With 3 grants, networking, having a baby, learning how to be a mentor and so on, I have not done the Science that I loved doing before. My mentor Donna was wise: when I asked to leave UAB she asked for three papers in the three months before I went. She got them 🙂 It left me with a strong and recent publication record on my CV and gave me some wiggle room.

I am running out of wiggle room. I have some ideas, and some manuscript proposals in, and I need to get better at arranging my time.

Teaching

One of my proudest and most enjoyable achievements at UTSPH has been becoming a mentor. I have had the benefit of wonderful, selfless mentors and I am honored to be able to pass on their gifts to me, to my student. I have spoken to a lot of people, both inside and outside, of UT, about how to be an effective mentor. I am working hard at focusing on the needs and dreams of my student, not just *my* needs. I.e. really working with my student on what she wants, where she wants to be, and what she finds fulfilling, without just giving her the work I need done (in her name, of course). But then I am trying to balance this with keeping her productive. I invested a lot of time with my student identifying her weaknesses and working an individualized program to fulfill them. I hope to always have the time and freedom to do this for people.

Looking forward

I love my Department at UTSPH. I chose a job fairly naively (impulsively? Hastily?). I guess for a first faculty position, I didn’t really know what I was looking for. I guess I also didn’t know that (1) I would be a mum and (2) a Mum-Lekki might be looking for something different to a non-Mum Lekki. These are the things I value about my department:

*It is very egalitarian. I don’t see ‘ranks’ among the faculty. Everyone treats everyone else equally and with respect.

*Our Chair cares deeply about his Department. And it shows.

*It is a ‘healthy’ organization to me: everyone seems very happy to help and guide. There is no evidence of backstabbing or competitiveness between members of the Department. People pull together and are kind to each other.

*Many in my Department really value family. And have made (small) allowances for me having a baby. It’s not that they value me less, or expect less of me, just that I have been given some space. I have to hit the same benchmarks, by the same time, but the road there is a bit more flexible.

*Most importantly of all: I have fabulous female role models: women who are enormously successful, but are mothers first-and-foremost. I have loved seeing this.

I write this in the hope that it might inspire people who are job hunting to think beyond pay scale, teaching hours and tenure clocks, and think more about the type of place they want to be, and the type of place and people that would make them happy.

I always wondered what it would be like being faculty, and I think this post sums up the early months: highs and lows, panic, a juggling act, a steep (but wonderful) learning curve, responsibility (so much responsibility!), freedom.

So now… I am looking forward. I have 3 grants this month: An AHA Beginning-Grant-In-Aid and an R21 (familiar mechanisms, good funding rates, and based on my previous work – come on!!) and an internal pilot funding application.  I am already working on one R01 to be submitted in June (not sure if I will go as CO-I or CO-PI) and planning another (this time in the area I want to move into, but based within a team). I am also teaching (!) Team teaching (phew) in Summer, and building my own course in – of course – Behavioral Genetics, for the academic year 2013-14. Very exciting.

I am still scared nothing will come of anything, and I’ll be out of a job in June 2015. But hey, that just encourages me to keep trying so that I can say “At least I gave it my all”.

Academics: how do you feel? What do you feel about leaps from postdoc to faculty? What do you think your chances of a grant are.

Everyone: What do you look for in a job?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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