A scientist doing research in a lab

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Why aspiring academics should do less science

When one of us—John—started as an assistant professor, he was surprised at how much his day-to-day work differed from when he had been a trainee. He had known it would change, of course, but suddenly he found himself drawing on a totally different set of skills. He was no longer a researcher, but rather a project manager. Peering into a microscope, pipetting, and dissecting were replaced with grant writing, budgeting, and managing students.

This experience is common. Many who make that transition to principal investigator (PI) find themselves utterly unprepared for their new duties. Their training failed them in preparing for their real job! But it doesn’t have to be that way. Trainees can seek out opportunities to expand their skills and render themselves better prepared to lead a research program down the line. It means taking a little time away from research to develop additional expertise, but it’s a trade-off that’s well worth it. Here are our tips for getting started down that path.

Apply for external funding. Junior PIs spend the vast majority of their time asking for research dollars. You can hone the skills you’ll need to succeed at this crucial task while you’re a trainee. Your first responsibility is securing and extending your own funding, so apply for as many awards—such as fellowships and travel awards—as humanly possible. These funding opportunities don’t just come to you; you have to seek them out. Regularly check websites of government agencies, private nonprofit organizations, and your institution. Actually read those newsletters you get from your department that fill up your inbox. Spend at least an hour each week actively searching for these funding opportunities; this is an ideal post-lunch slump activity. And be creative: Think of all the ways your work can apply to different areas. When Jacquelyn and Leanne studied cardiovascular complications of spinal cord injury, for example, they applied to any and every funding opportunity related to these topics—including ones focused on general health, neurology, neuroscience, spinal cord injury, disability, musculoskeletal health, heart and stroke, and multiple sclerosis. Together, these approaches will help you find opportunities that others typically overlook.

Participate in grant writing. Another way to hone your grant-writing skills is to ask your supervisor whether you can help with their funding applications. Frame your request as both a learning exercise for you and as an offer to help them by taking some of the work off their plate. Although it may feel intimidating to contribute to your PI’s very important grant application, remember that there’s lots you can do that would be helpful, and that you may actually be the best person for the job because you are closest to the results. For example, if your supervisor asks you to provide data to support a funding application, offer to write a figure legend and contribute to the literature review relevant to those results. Regardless of the size of your contribution, it can be mutually beneficial.

Learn how money works. Funding crucially dictates the direction of research, but some trainees work on a project for years without knowing how it is funded, or how much funding is planned or available for the work. Don’t let that be you. Ask to help with—or at least see—how your PI keeps track of grant dollars. Look at budgets for research grants. Create a budget for your own research project. The more you learn about keeping track of grant dollars and navigating the details of inventory, ordering, shipping, and payment, the better off you’ll be when you start running your own research program.

Publish throughout your training. Publishing regularly not only builds your CV, but also improves your writing skills (necessary for grantsmanship, among other things). What many don’t realize is that you can start building your publication record even if you aren’t ready to submit your big paper. Consider publishing systematic reviews, narrative reviews, letters to the editor, and other commentaries as a way to work on your writing chops and expand your expertise. Doing so will also familiarize you with the journal submission process, which can be complicated—formatting for a specific journal, writing a cover letter, suggesting reviewers, and navigating the journal’s online submission system—but the more you do it, the easier it will get.

Gain experience as a mentor and supervisor. Effective supervision is another crucial skill that you should start developing and fostering as early as possible. Helping other people do good work is different—and sometimes more difficult—than doing it yourself, so you’ll need to practice, just like anything else. Research groups have different organizational systems, but opportunities for mentorship exist in most places. Don’t dismiss the responsibility; embrace it as an opportunity to extend your mentorship skills. Even if you are early in your training, you can seek out mentorship opportunities. If you have a mini-project that would be suitable for undergraduate student involvement, for example, approach your supervisor with a short project description and ask if you can take on a student to start working with you.

When serving as a supervisor, extend your mentorship beyond the basics. In addition to teaching your trainee how to perform techniques in the lab, provide rationale and background reading for their project, help them manage their time in the lab, and edit their work. Look for opportunities for them to present at a departmental or institutional research day, or—even better—at a conference in the field. Acting as a good mentor will serve both of you: They will have an enriching training experience, and their achievements will provide a valuable example of your ability to help coach someone to success. 

Teach and serve on committees. For just about any junior faculty posting, teaching and other leadership experience is an absolute must. You cannot go through your Ph.D. without teaching. This doesn’t mean you need to be the primary lecturer for a course; Jacquelyn, for example, served as a teaching assistant, assisting with grading, giving guest lectures, and helping create course content. Leanne served on committees that steered curriculum development. You can also serve on student committees in outreach, ethics, and conference organization. Any experience you can refer to will strengthen your application down the line.

Gaining early experience in these important arenas will better prepare you for a career in academia, so if you are considering such a career, it’s important to take a little time away from research to develop these other skills as well. And as an added benefit, doing so can also provide a little variety to break up the monotony of doing lab work all day!

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