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Choosing team over tenure

In my fourth year as a postdoc, I was excited to be offered a university faculty position. But it wasn’t a tenure-track job, and if I accepted the position, I wouldn’t be an independent principal investigator (PI). Instead, I would be an assistant professor on a “team track,” working with other talented faculty members in one lab under the supervision of a brilliant director, together driven by an ambitious scientific vision that none of us could accomplish alone. I would have the freedom to develop my own research program within the context of our team’s goals, and at the same time, I would benefit from the support of a larger team vision and infrastructure. It seemed like an ideal balance.

At the time, I was not considering going on the tenure-track job market. I had seen how the stress that many tenure-track faculty members experienced made it look like science wasn’t fun for them anymore, and I didn’t want that to happen to me. In addition, I knew that finding a tenure-track job was a part-time job in itself! I did not want to commit to such an extensive job search just yet; I was enjoying my current environment, especially pursuing unconventional industry-academic collaborations that I could continue to foster as a faculty member.

Each faculty member gets to be a motivated scientific leader of their independent sub-research program while also contributing to the larger team vision.

The team track seemed like a great alternative to the tenure track. My responsibilities would include building, managing, and mentoring a research team; applying for grants as a PI and co-PI; and publishing papers as first or last author. Teaching wasn’t mandatory, but I could pursue opportunities that interested me, such as guest lecturing in courses throughout the year. Finally, I knew the other faculty members on the team would make excellent colleagues. I had worked with them during my postdoc, and they were all inspiring and dedicated people with diverse scientific expertise.

Some would consider working under a more senior PI to be a downside to the team-track position, but I didn’t see it that way. I knew the director to be an excellent adviser and motivator who would unite his team members under the larger scientific vision, not someone who would constantly question how we conducted our research, or limit our creativity. In addition, joining an established lab would offer full access to cutting-edge shared resources, infrastructure, and expert lab staff, which are vital for innovative research yet would have been hard to obtain rapidly if I were striking out on my own to establish an independent lab.

From my perspective, the only drawback of the team-track role was that, unlike for a tenure-track job, there were no university funds protected for my position. My teammates and I would be fully in charge of funding ourselves through research grants. But I believed that with hard work, perseverance and some luck, the funding would follow. Plus, the pursuit of funding would be a team effort, providing a cushion in case my individual efforts did not bear fruit. Overall, I decided that the pros of this unconventional position outweighed the cons, and so without much hesitation, I said yes to the team track!

Three years have passed, and our lab continues to grow. When I started, there was only one other junior faculty member. We now have five faculty members, several postdocs and research associates, and a graduate student under one director. The growth suggests that our team setup is indeed attractive to young scientists establishing their careers. And why not? Each faculty member gets to be a motivated scientific leader of their independent sub-research program while also contributing to the larger team vision. We each have independent research niches within the team, which helps us be productive and secure in our defined scientific identities. This security, in turn, allows us to mutually respect the expertise of the other faculty members in the team and to collaborate comfortably, without feeling competitive.

On a day-to-day basis, my primary responsibilities are to make my research program flourish, garner funding, find and mentor talented research staff to work with me, design and execute experiments, and publish papers—not unlike a tenure-track job. But I appreciate that I do not feel the burden of the serious management responsibilities that come with being on the tenure track, where scientists have to single-handedly run a lab while also juggling research time with department committee meetings, teaching, and other obligations.

My research also benefits from the fact that I share my workspace with faculty members and postdocs whose expertise is complementary to mine. I often find myself asking, or responding to, questions like: “Do you think my interpretation of these results is correct?” “What methodology would you use to answer this research question?” “What did you learn at that conference?” or “What content did you cover when you taught that class?” When we write manuscripts, all team members give detailed feedback, and this internal review prior to submission improves our papers. We also often team up to write review articles. When we teach classes together, the students benefit from hearing from many instructors giving in-depth lectures in their areas of expertise. Our group dynamic has become one where we make many decisions as a team and think and troubleshoot together, often and spontaneously. I thoroughly enjoy this constant learning, where my scientific perspective and knowledge base is continually broadened.

I am also fortunate that my stress is never isolated. When a grant or experiment fails, I seek out others from my team to help strategize and come up with solutions, and the other team faculty members do the same. When one team member has funding success, she or he brings more resources and personnel into the mix, which all team members benefit from. This community of support makes challenges in research feel less daunting. Being on the team track has also helped me establish a work-life balance that I am happy with, which is admittedly hard to achieve in academic science. 

Despite my enthusiasm about being on the team track, it doesn’t come without risks. I have a yearly contract, so I have less job security than tenure offers—though this doesn't worry me because in reality I can stay as long as I, with the help of my team, continue to secure funding for my research. Also, it can be hard to explain our setup to other academics, which could have implications for career advancement. Academia traditionally values individual accomplishment and has not yet developed adequate metrics to evaluate teamwork, which can put me in a difficult position when I am being compared to other PIs at my career stage who work in a more traditional independent model. To minimize the risks, I initiate and accomplish many projects in the lead role, and publish often as lead author.

It hasn’t always been easy. At one point, 1 year into the team track, I considered leaving because I was feeling like a sidekick in the director’s show. Our director is a well-respected and celebrated scientist, which usually works to our benefit because it brings in more funds and resources to the team, but we all have egos, and I was feeling overshadowed. I initiated a conversation with him about leaving, with some apprehension about how he would react. The conversations extended over a week; he welcomed the dialogue and was a patient listener. Above all, he conveyed how my contributions were vital to the team effort. We also discussed how we could increase my independence so that I would not feel constrained. I came out of these discussions feeling heard and respected. He agreed to let me expand my research program in the directions I wanted it to go, and I was offered more opportunities to represent and be recognized for my work at conferences and other public speaking forums. I decided to stay and remain passionate about our shared team vision.

After my conversations with him, our director started organizing team faculty lunches every couple of months to give us an opportunity to openly discuss our needs and problems. These lunches have become relaxed check-ins to ensure we are all on the same page and continue to be excited about our individual endeavors and our contributions to the team effort. Such discussions are a crucial part of preventing the potential conflicts between faculty members that could arise in a team environment.

Creating a productive teamwork environment isn’t automatic; it requires attention and work. Our team is successful in part because the team director and my fellow faculty members value accessibility, transparency, and mutual respect, and we make concerted efforts to address any teamwork challenges that may arise. For instance, when we share resources, we first agree upon proper handling procedures and schedule times for resource access; when we share personnel, we decide at the outset how much time they will dedicate to each project; and when we start new projects, we discuss and agree upon the appropriate author sequence for any resulting papers.

Our team track does not come with a faculty handbook; we figure out the rules as we go. I’m happy because at every step, I get equal opportunity in making these rules. I continue to learn tremendously on the team track, both in terms of scientific research and people skills, and see it as a good fit for me long into the future. Ultimately, whatever position allows me to best pursue the science that I love, even if it’s an unconventional one, is the one for me.

The author with her team in summer 2015

The author with her team in summer 2015

Credit: Steve Babuljak

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