Gary Johnson: Speaking From Experience

New faculty members in the sciences must take on a complicated spectrum of responsibilities for which most are ill prepared. Apart from the science, which they generally know well, superior grantsmanship and management skills, as well as excellence in teaching and service, are necessary for an enduring career in academia.

Gary L. Johnson, chair of the department of pharmacology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is one faculty member who has endured. After 29 years of fulfilling the responsibilities of a science faculty member, administrator, and mentor to younger scientists, Johnson describes his experiences, from his early days as an assistant professor to his transition to administration, and offers advice to academic scientists who are just starting out.

Getting Started

Johnson earned his Ph.D. in pharmacology from the University of Colorado in 1976 and went on to do postdoctoral work at the University of California, San Francisco. At 28, he was hired as an assistant professor in the department of physiological chemistry at BrownUniversity. "When you walk into an empty lab, ... [that] is one of the hardest times in your career," Johnson says. That empty space must be transformed into a well-equipped, well-staffed, and well-managed factory turning out scientific publications on a regular basis, and it must be up and running quickly. Even a generous start-up package will only take you so far, so one of the first things a scientist must do to fill that empty lab--and keep it full and active--is acquire funding.

The process of acquiring funding in the biomedical sciences is different for young investigators now than it was for Johnson in the 1970s, partly because of changes in NIH policy. Things were much easier then, says Johnson. "Young investigators--if they had done really well in the late '70s or early '80s--were given their first grant, and then they were screened at the time of their first competitive renewal. Now, things have changed significantly where young investigators have a very difficult time getting their first [NIH grant]." Today, new investigators must compete on even terms against more experienced scientists, and success rates are declining rapidly.

His advice for junior faculty: "I think your grants need to be very focused, and they need to be very well written, and you should not be afraid to have multiple faculty members read those grants." Having senior faculty members review a grant before it is submitted is important. Not only do they have experience writing grants; many of them will have evaluated grants on study sections in the past, and they will be able to point out flaws in the proposal. Senior scientists in your field may even have inside information on the kinds of ideas study sections are interested in funding.

And although NIH funding is the coin of the realm, beginning scientists should not forget about private foundations such as the American Cancer Society and the March of Dimes, although these foundations usually only fund grants that are very focused toward their aims. A personal phone call to the society of interest may save the trouble of writing a misdirected grant. "I recommend that [the investigator] be organized and have a set of specific aims ... so that when they call this person, they're ready to talk to them about fairly specific details of the grant, because people are usually very candid about whether they think it's appropriate or not," says Johnson.

One thing new investigators often do that may not be appropriate: They change directions too much and too fast ... which is Johnson's Mistake #1: Changing directions significantly from the postdoctoral project when developing research aims. Although it's a good idea to choose a postdoc field that's significantly different from your Ph.D., a radical change of direction when you start your faculty position isn't always advisable. "Particularly if they come from a big lab, [junior faculty] feel like they have to change projects. ... You should do what you've done really well as a postdoc and try to focus on that." Certainly, he says, in a new environment, the approach to science may be different, and new technologies exist that can be taken advantage of, but staying close to your area of expertise can help you demonstrate the ability to function as an independent investigator.

Managing Resources

As daunting as the challenge of getting the first grant funded is, even more intimidating to a beginning scientist may be that first foray into management as head of a small workforce. "I think one of the biggest problems when you first get your lab is that you don't have any management training," says Johnson. When Johnson started his own research laboratory at BrownUniversity, he was one of the youngest members of his own group.

During those early years, Johnson admits, he demonstrated less-than-perfect judgment when he accepted his first few lab members. "I think in the early days, ... I was willing to take almost any graduate student who wanted to come into my lab, which can be a mistake because if you take a graduate student or a postdoc or a research assistant who requires tremendous time and training and they don't have the commitment to really learn, it diverts you and your own research effort." Now he understands that quality, not quantity, is the important factor when selecting individuals to help drive the research forward. His current group has 11 members, a size that he finds works well for his current commitment level and management style.

Unfortunately, faculty members--young and old--sometimes make mistakes, hiring lab staff who fail to meet expectations. It would be great if universities provided formal training for their new hires in human resources management, says Johnson, but they usually don't, so most young scientists must learn on their own to deal with workers who are not performing well. "If you have someone who's truly mediocre in your laboratory--scientists are not very good at this--[you] probably need to have them leave the laboratory." Unproductive lab members, Johnson says, use costly resources, and other members of the lab are usually appreciative when the principal investigator asks a poor performer to leave. New investigators should keep in mind, however, that in getting rid of problem staff, state, federal, and institutional regulations must be considered. So if you have a staff problem you need to solve, it's a good idea to consult your department chair.

The most common management error Johnson cites among junior faculty has little to do with lab personnel. Mistake #2: Getting out of the lab too soon. Many scientists, Johnson observes, get out of the lab as soon as someone else is there to do experiments, and that, he says, is not a good idea. Johnson stayed in the lab doing experiments for 16 of his 26 years as a principal investigator.

One difficulty with staying in the lab is that so many other obligations compete for a new faculty member's time and attention. Teaching, in particular, requires much more time in the beginning years, and if it isn't managed well, service, too, can take a big bite out of the typical workweek. Still, Johnson recommends spending as much time as possible in the lab. One approach he recommends is to divide up the work into tasks that can be done in the available time slots. Although more time would be ideal, at least this way you don't have to abandon an experiment to go to a committee meeting. The key is to make the most of the available time.

Staying Focused

For junior faculty members who find it difficult to deal with a variety of commitments, the solution is simple. Research isn't the most important thing; it's the only thing. Which brings us to Johnson's Mistake #3: Taking on too many commitments that take you away from your research. Johnson exercises this philosophy in his position as chair. "I don't ask young faculty hired at an assistant professor level to perform service, and I don't have them do any teaching, particularly professional classes, during their first year. I make it very clear to them that their priority during the first year is to establish their research program."

Teaching and service are an important part of university work and should be taken seriously, but for faculty hired in tenure-track positions at research universities, the lion's share of effort should be dedicated to getting good papers published in good journals and getting grants funded.

Another potential distraction for young faculty is opportunities for research collaborations. "Many people view collaborations as [if] you should do work for them," Johnson warns. When eager young scientists with innovative ideas join a department, Johnson observes, some senior scientists may see it as an opportunity to advance their own research. This is risky, because unrelated projects, however exciting, can be a diversion from the main research goals, and achieving those main research goals is necessary for grant funding and renewal. Furthermore, when you collaborate with a better-known scientist, the bulk of the credit is likely to go to him or her, even if you have the bulk of the ideas and do the bulk of the work. When considering any collaboration, the ratio of costs to benefits should be evaluated carefully.

Collaborations should be approached cautiously, but that doesn't mean that young scientists should keep a low profile or avoid collaboration altogether. "I recommend to [junior faculty] to be visible in some way, in seminars, faculty functions, interdisciplinary functions within [the university], and don't be afraid to contact or approach other people." Johnson encourages interaction among scientists and creative contributions to the overall research mission of the department.

Even after nearly 30 years of research, Johnson still struggles to make time for everything that's important to him. These days it's not setting up a lab but managing a department that keeps him too busy. "The thing that I lost when I became chair," he says, "is my time to write. For the first time I was slowing down in getting manuscripts done. ... So what I had to do is carve out time in my schedule where, unless there was some very important meeting, I closed my door. I made it clear to my assistant that I don't want to be disturbed, and I keep that private time for my research and my writing."

Good Science

Despite the pressures, Johnson is committed to his mission as chair--to "effect change," something that all scientists have the power to do whether it is with large-scale scientific initiatives or with simple, sound, significant research. "Science should be fun," he muses. Though spanning the spectrum from positive to negative, his experiences have left him with a single, poignant, encouraging impression: "The one thing that's true that I've seen over and over is [that] good science is always rewarded."

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers