So, you just started your new job. You have a new lab space with or without workstations or lab benches and equipment. But, at first, you have no students, technicians, postdocs. You are a lab of one. The people who will populate you lab are not just important to getting work done, they are also essential for keeping you in touch with science through regular conversations and working groups. What do you do to stay in contact with science during this short, but possibly debilitating time in your science career?
Build your network on campus. This is a good time to get to know the other people on campus who are doing work within and peripheral to your research. For people very near to your field, invite them to lunch to discuss your research plans and grant ideas. Ask them if they would be available to read a draft of your grants. For people more afar from your field, talk to them about what they are doing, get general advice about starting a lab, and time management, and maybe see if there are some collaboration possibilities.
Glom onto others. This is a bit silly, but what I mean is keep yourself in a lab culture of some sort by attending the group meetings of other people. When I started, I attended group meetings and had joint lab meeting with 3-4 different groups over the first couple years when we were still a very small group. Small groups can’t really have normal group meetings. If you rotate who is presenting, they end up presenting every-other-week! Combining with another smallish lab will give more lag time between presentations. Also, this gives you the ability to see how other people at your institution format their group meetings. You can choose your favorite method.
Join or start a journal club. Journal clubs are a good way to stay current with the latest in your field. Depending on the field, journal clubs are more or less prevalent, yet most people see the benefit of reading an article and discussing as a group. Joining an existing journal club or even starting a new one and including other professors and their students within your field is a great way to stay in touch with science and stay motivated while you start your new position. This piece of advice may seem really obvious and stupid, but when faced with so many new demands for your time, it is easy to decide to skip this practice that was a no-brainer as a graduate student or postdoc. All I am saying is, stick with it! Don’t give this up because it is a essential for when your science picks back up out of this temporary lull.
Build your network off campus. When you first start a lab, you may be tempted to stop going to conferences because you have to pay your own way and you don’t have anything new to present. Go anyway! Conferences are essential for keeping up your network of scientists and mentors. Don’t be embarrassed that you don’t have anything complete to present, discuss your plans with supportive mentors working in your field. Talk with them about grant writing strategies and see if they will read your proposals before you submit. In a couple years, you will have to go through the mini-tenure process and then the tenure process a few years later. Conferences are essential to build up your connections with potential letter writers. Even if you don’t talk to BigShotProfessor who will ultimately write your letter, if they see you across the hall talking science at a conference, they will assume all is well. Once you have anything even close to resembling results, submit an abstract to present. I recommend even submitting a late abstract if your results are late-breaking and after the normal deadline for abstracts. Tell people at the conference that you are presenting your new results and that they should stop by to see the poster or talk (shameless self-promotion is good, remember). Presenting new work early does two good things: (1) you are marking your territory on the project and (2) you are demonstrating your ability to create new science, fulfilling your promise as a young tenure track professor. Basically, use these conferences to see and be seen.
As your lab grows and you have students, these initial habits will pay off.
Any other suggestions for how to cope during this low time in the lab before you have people and perhaps even a lab at all? Please comment or guest post!
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