NINDS's Building Up the Nerve

S4E8: Demystifying the Early Career Faculty Stage

October 06, 2023 NINDS Season 4 Episode 8
S4E8: Demystifying the Early Career Faculty Stage
NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
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NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
S4E8: Demystifying the Early Career Faculty Stage
Oct 06, 2023 Season 4 Episode 8

The fourth Season of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Building Up the Nerve podcast, where we discuss the unwritten rules, or “hidden curriculum,” of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help—it's our job!

In episode 8, we talk about succeeding as junior faculty, including starting a lab from scratch, balancing all aspects of the job, and how to manage tenure expectations.

Featuring Ishmail Abdus-Saboor, PhD, Assistant Professor, Columbia University; Katie Wilkinson, PhD, Professor, San Jose State University; and Jack Lipton, PhD, Professor, Michigan State University.


Transcript available at

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

The fourth Season of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Building Up the Nerve podcast, where we discuss the unwritten rules, or “hidden curriculum,” of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help—it's our job!

In episode 8, we talk about succeeding as junior faculty, including starting a lab from scratch, balancing all aspects of the job, and how to manage tenure expectations.

Featuring Ishmail Abdus-Saboor, PhD, Assistant Professor, Columbia University; Katie Wilkinson, PhD, Professor, San Jose State University; and Jack Lipton, PhD, Professor, Michigan State University.


Transcript available at

[00:00:00] Lauren Ullrich: [intro music] Welcome to Season 4 of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes Building Up the Nerve, where we discuss the unwritten rules or "hidden curriculum" of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help. It's our job. [music fades]

Hi, I'm Lauren Ullrich, a Program Director at NINDS. 

[00:00:25] Marguerite Matthews: And I'm Marguerite Matthews, also a Program Director at NINDS and we're your hosts today. 

[00:00:31] Lauren Ullrich: Last episode, we discussed applying for a faculty position. And today we're going to talk about succeeding as junior faculty, including things like starting a lab from scratch, balancing all the different aspects of the job, and how to meet expectations for tenure.

 [music] So joining us today are Dr. Ishmail Abdus-Saboor, Dr. Katie Wilkinson, and Dr. Jack Lipton. So let's start with introductions. 

[00:01:00] Ishmail Abdus-Saboor: Hi, I'm Ishmail Abdus-Saboor. I'm an assistant professor of biological sciences and principal investigator at Columbia University Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute. So, I'm a sensory neurobiologist. I'm really interested and fascinated by how the brain generates the perception of pleasure or pain based off sensory stimuli applied to our skin. I'm really interested in this connection between the peripheral and central nervous system. So genes and neural circuits for somatosensation.

And a hobby I would say outside of lab, I'm really interested in the arts and, uh, I like to go to museums here in New York city. 

[00:01:37] Lauren Ullrich: Favorite museum? 

[00:01:39] Ishmail Abdus-Saboor: Favorite museum, um, probably either the Met or the uh, Guggenheim. It's a toss up. 

[00:01:46] Katie Wilkinson: Hi, my name is Katie Wilkinson. I'm a professor at San Jose State University and SJSU is one of the 23 Cal State campuses. We're a primarily undergraduate institution, although we do have a master's program as well. And, my lab studies what I like to call the most important sensory organ you've probably never heard of, the muscle spindle.

 The muscle spindle relays muscle movement and length information to your brain. It's very important for your sense of body and limb position in space. And it's also the sensory arm for the muscle stretch reflex. So the sensory information is very important for motor behaviors and balance. And my lab's interested in the molecular machinery that allows these neurons to work and diseases that impair their function.

As for a hobby outside of work, I really like getting outside and hiking in some of the many nice parks around me in California. And actually, I met my husband on a hike. That's a fun fact. And, um, since the pandemic started, a colleague and I have started weekly mental health hikes that many days feel like, uh, take up too much of the day when we start, but we always feel better afterwards.

[00:02:57] Lauren Ullrich: Now, where are you hiking? 

[00:02:59] Marguerite Matthews: [laughs] I was just about to ask the same thing. Where are you hiking and can you couple the matchmaking with the mental health aspect? 

[00:03:06] Katie Wilkinson: [laughs] Yeah. Well, so the matchmaking happened in Atlanta. So on Red Top Mountain, when I was a postdoc there, but here in San Jose, um, we have a really nice county park in Santa Teresa.

Um, that's near where my friend lives and that's where we usually go. Although there are plenty of state parks and county parks around that in the summer, we like to hit, instead of just the ones near our house. 

[00:03:28] Lauren Ullrich: Hey, everybody. I'm Jack Lipton. I'm a professor and the founding chair of the Department of Translational Neuroscience in the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University. Michigan State University is a Big 10 school and an R1 institution. I'm also the president of the Association of Medical School Neuroscience Department Chairs as an extra credit job.

[00:03:48] Jack Lipton: Uh, in terms of my work, I'm a dopamine neuroscientist. I focused originally on substance abuse and developmental exposure to drugs of abuse. And then I moved into Parkinson's disease research when fetal cell transplants were all the rage back in the 90s. That's how I got moved from substance abuse into fetal dopamine neurodevelopment and utilization of that for transplantation and therapy. 

Uh, I also do a little bit of work in COVID testing. I ran the COVID testing for, uh, for Michigan State University, developed a test there. And I'm still doing some of that work in underserved, uh, communities, examining the, uh sequence variants that are moving all across Michigan and working in different, uh, clinics to determine how variants are spreading in different communities.

As a department chair, I'm really focused on my department. So we run a department that focuses on Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. We're very much dedicated to team science because we think we're all smarter together than when we work alone. And the scholarship in our unit spans the molecular basis of disease to improving racial, ethnic, and gender disparities of research and health care delivery in the community.

We're working to find new biomarkers for disease detection, identifying new targets for therapeutics, and when possible, partnering to spin off companies with and work with biotech firms to translate our work into real world solutions. 

In terms of a hobby, I love to tinker with old motorcycles in my backyard. I'm kind of a Euro trash biker. And, uh 

[00:05:20] Marguerite Matthews: [laughs]

[00:05:21] Jack Lipton: Like British, British heritage motorcycles. I'm reasonably good at working on motorcycles. I also love to garden, but I'm not nearly as good at it. [music] 

[00:05:29] Marguerite Matthews: Starting a lab from scratch seems like a really huge endeavor. You have to establish your physical space, order equipment, set up the equipment, hire staff, and apply for funding and probably many other things that I don't even know about because I haven't done it.

 Can you talk about where you start and how do you recommend faculty should prioritize their time in getting things set up? 

[00:05:56] Jack Lipton: I can start from the, from the chair position. So we deal a lot with, with junior faculty coming in and I've onboarded many faculty over the last decade. And one of the most important things is really making sure you right size your laboratory early on. I think a lot of people get really excited. They're like, I'm going to come in, I'm going to hire a tech, I'm going to hire a, um, a couple of postdocs. I'm going to get some students, I'm going to develop my community and I'm going to grow my laboratory.

And often there is so much to do to really set up that laboratory that the over-enthusiasm can lead to a lack of progress. And we really try to get our junior faculty to focus on: get a technician, someone who's senior and experienced to really start off your lab and help you get things moving; it's very difficult to get a postdoc when you're starting off and you're brand new, because postdocs, "I want to work with someone that has a reputation that has an established program." Even if you're coming in with funding, like, say, an R00, it's still extremely difficult. And so we're trying to get them to focus on the core functioning of their laboratory and then going from there. 

[00:07:07] Katie Wilkinson: My biggest tip from setting up a lab is to spend the time to set up really sustainable systems to start things off for you well. So, making sure your protocols are really detailed and easily accessible, having checklists for common things. Make sure you have a data management strategy and have kind of thought about how you want to on board people into your lab, especially at a place like mine, where I have a really high turnover of undergraduates and master's students, spending the time to actually make it less time intensive when they do come in and thinking carefully about how you want to have more senior people in your lab, train the more junior people pays dividends. I have to say every couple of years I go in and remind people that they should be actually using the checklist so that they don't forget to turn on the oxygen or something silly. [laughter] Um, you know, science is hard. Don't let the silly things get in the way.

And so I think that that's a really important thing to spend some of your time on and also understanding how you can actually spend the money in your startup and making sure you get it spent within the time that you have. If your institution is like mine, you have different flavors of money and different places where your money is held will be easier to spend for different things than others. Some things will take a really long time. And so taking the time to meet with people in your administration team to figure out how you get those things and can efficiently get the equipment that you need to start right away is important. 

[00:08:34] Marguerite Matthews: Turning something on or off is an underrated check, so I think that's amazing that you said that. 

[00:08:42] Katie Wilkinson: [laughs] yeah

[00:08:43] Jack Lipton: I will say that our junior faculty tend to be much better on developing SOPs and keeping laboratory notebooks than most of our senior faculty; the systems based mindset is really, really valuable. And often it's our junior faculty that are teaching our senior faculty how to best keep a lab notebook or how to keep appropriate records.

[00:09:05] Ishmail Abdus-Saboor: Yes, I can chime in here. So I opened my lab in the summer of 2018. One of the things I definitely focused on was the people, you know, recruiting good people, I think, is very important. And sometimes junior faculty have the, um, sort of knee jerk reaction; you have this empty lab and space and you're thinking about your tenure clock and you must resist the urge to just fill that lab space with a bunch of warm bodies.

You know, having people who are not the best people, um, can really put you on a bad track. So, I hired two technicians, uh, right out the gate so that they can kind of support one another. And I spent a lot of time recruiting these people and talking to like their letter writers on the phone, not just going by like the written recommendation. 

 I put a lot of time and energy into getting the right people. And I had two grad students join the lab that were really good in the first year. And this allowed me to kind of establish a really good reputation. Uh, the students talk to one another, and once they see like, you know, that you have a reputation as a good mentor and a place where you can do good science, then you'll start to recruit the kinds of people you want in your lab. 

Another thing I'll say about, like, grant writing: um, so I came in with an R00, so I had some funding and you get a substantial startup. You know, I think you shouldn't focus too much time on writing grants when you just get started. You need to get data, you need to get papers. If you're in a good institution, they've resourced you well to have enough money to get going. So, you don't want to spend too much time holed away in your office writing grants.

You need to be generating data and getting the papers out of your lab because that will produce even more grants in the future. The foundation grants are an exception because some of those you have, you know, a year limit, or 2 year limit, or... So, you know, you apply for all of those things, but, um, maybe some of the federal funding, I would advise to wait a few years.

And this is a last note on the startup. Some people have advice to kind of save it for, you know, 5, 10 years, a rainy day. Um, I didn't take that advice. You know, the start up, they give it to you for three years. So you kind of need to spend money to make money. So get the equipment, you know, hire the people you need.

Um, don't worry so much about spending it all. You need to grow, right? And, what use is it if you've hoarded this money for so long, and you're not successful, right? Then you'll be perhaps looking for a new job with all this money in the bank. 

[00:11:38] Marguerite Matthews: [laughs] 

[00:11:39] Lauren Ullrich: That you can't take with you. 

[00:11:40] Marguerite Matthews: That you can't take with you.

[00:11:42] Jack Lipton: Can I add on to that? It's really important in a department or in a college to be, uh, really well resourced. So we try to encourage our, our junior faculty to do exactly what Ishmail said, which is spend that money. We have additional money if, for some reason, something times out in a particular way, the other monies are usually available in a well resourced department. And if you have a plan and you know what you're doing, there's usually enthusiasm behind providing additional resources when you need 'em. Don't be shy. 

[00:12:10] Lauren Ullrich: And is that the same at a PUI, Katie?

[00:12:12] Katie Wilkinson: Uh, no, [laughter] but we would also not qualify as a well resourced institution. So I guess that's that's a key difference. I mean, my startup was likely an order of magnitude lower than at an R1. And so I did have to be pretty careful about starting to figure out ways to get more money. Of course, at a, a PUI, you often have other sources of support.

Um, so I spent a lot of time applying for internal grants or helping students write for those internal grants. I'm lucky to live in the Bay area so there were biotech giveaways. So you do have to be maybe a little bit more creative at, um, an institution where you're getting a smaller startup, but generally the expectations align with the resources that you're given. And so, you know, certainly I don't think my expectations for papers or grant funding was anywhere near what people at an R1 would have. 

[00:13:12] Lauren Ullrich: One of the things we talked a lot about last season, which is all about mentorship, was like lab culture. And I was wondering if any of you have thoughts on, you know, how do you make sure your lab reflects your values and how are you intentional about setting up a positive lab culture? 

[00:13:32] Ishmail Abdus-Saboor: Yeah. I think, you know, that the lab culture and values definitely come from the top, come from the leader, the PI of the lab, and how you interact and engage. You know, I've seen the people in your lab will kind of embody that. So one way I've tried to create an environment where we're very supportive and work together is, you know, during our lab meetings and making sure that every voice is heard from the postdoc and PhD student down to the technician or even undergraduate, you know, everyone has the ability to chime in and the question and the comment and when people see me treating everyone with the same level of respect and dignity, I think that kind of permeates through the culture that we've established in the lab. 

[00:14:19] Jack Lipton: 

[00:14:19] Katie Wilkinson: I'd say one of my main goals is to try to help support students who come into my lab with a diversity of goals.

 So every lab, your goal is to, of course, make new knowledge and also provide training for the people coming through your lab and at my type of institution, maybe the balance is a little bit more focused on that training aspect as well. And so I've tried to set up the way we run the lab to support students who want to go on for PhDs, really have the time and interest, um, to try to become more independent, but also to support those students for a variety of reasons who have more modest goals for the lab.

Um, so they can still get a lot out of learning the skills, learning to work in teams for whatever it is they want to do. So just to echo some things that have already been said, try to treat everyone with respect and not play favorites based on you know, the time that they're able to spend and just try to make it, there's space for people to flourish and become more independent if they want to, but also to feel like their contributions are valued, even if they're more modest.

[00:15:22] Ishmail Abdus-Saboor: Yeah. One thing I can say, you know, about culture once, once it's established, it's hard to kind of change it. So, be very cognizant when you open your lab. And one thing I've learned too, is that, you know, one person can change the culture for better or worse. So, as, as the lab grows and we bring in new people I'm looking for people who are wonderful scientists, but also wonderful people and understand what we're trying to do here. Um, because if not, you know, one person can sour the culture that we've built. 

[00:15:52] Jack Lipton: I've seen that go really, really wrong, right? And it's not even just the culture in the lab. That person can leave and it can still leave a bit of a fog or a funk around a lab based upon the talk of of other grad students, right?

[00:16:06] Marguerite Matthews: So, creating an amazing lab culture is just one of the many different aspects of your job that you have. You know, you've gotten your lab a little bit up and running, you've started hiring people, you're creating a positive and productive work environment. How do you balance all of that with sort of the other expectations and responsibility that you have as a faculty member?

Um, the research, if there's any service or teaching requirements, your mentorship, but also, you know, managing a business, right? Like you're balancing a budget, making sure people are getting paid, things are getting ordered, everything that you need to carry out your research and other responsibilities. So can you talk about what that's like? Is, is there such a thing as balance? Or are you always just, you know, got a bunch of balls in the air that you're not really juggling, they just somehow managed to stay up there. 

[00:16:58] Katie Wilkinson: I think the first thing that you have to do is become okay with the fact that you will never do everything that you want to do, and I don't know, probably never feel like you actually have true balance, um, but learn when things are good enough.

 A lot of my job is teaching as well and preparing lectures and activities in class can take up as much time as you give it. So, you know, really putting boundaries on times for different tasks, trying to prioritize based on importance and urgency and, um, again, trying to put those systems in place that allow you to be more efficient for the things that you do have to do.

[00:17:34] Ishmail Abdus-Saboor: Yeah, I was going to say, I've always tried to think of how I'm spending my time proportional to how important those things are for tenure. Certainly research and scholarship, you know, are at the very top of the list in terms of large ecosystem of the life of a faculty member.

So, if I go throughout my day and thinking about how am I spending time, you know, most of the buckets of time need to be dedicated towards things that are getting me closer towards research and scholarship, publications, grants, et cetera.

Teaching, you know, I have to teach and be good and competent. But as, as just mentioned, teaching can take all of your time if you let it. So I have to realize that I have to be good and competent, but I can't put too much of my time in the teaching that would take away from some of my scholarship. 

And then service, you could spend all of your time doing service. And some of it is meaningful and you enjoy it. Some other committees, one wonders why there's a committee on on this particular topic. Right? For those sorts of things, you have to pick and choose and be judicious and say no a lot, you know, and I think the best departments will kind of shield junior faculty and make sure you are spending your time in the right areas. I keep hearing people tell me after tenure, we're coming for you for this department, for this committee or that one. And that's good because that means people are kind of respecting my time and realizing where I need to be focusing. 

[00:19:03] Marguerite Matthews: I already know there are so many targets on you, Ish, like, I know people want a little piece of you and are just chomping at the bit, just waiting for that clock to go off, 

[00:19:13] Lauren Ullrich: [laughs] 

[00:19:14] Marguerite Matthews: to start sending you those email requests.

[00:19:17] Lauren Ullrich: Sounds ominous. Both of the ways that you phrased that. [ laughs] 

[00:19:20] Jack Lipton: Yeah watch out. As a chair, you know, we're always looking on, on both sides. So we have to watch junior faculty and make sure that we are protecting their time. That's really important, like Ishmail said. But at the same time, we do have to run an organization and, and we do need to make sure that junior faculty get exposed to each one of these and have a sufficient amount of experience within each of the missions: research, service, and teaching. And, because our department doesn't teach that much, um, mentoring of graduate students falls kind of under education. But when we want people to really understand how the university and the college work, we want to get them involved in a little bit of committee service and usually starting with local unit committees. And those are not too hard, but we we are very cognizant of making sure we don't overload people. 

And so is our mentoring program. So the college mentoring program really focuses on how how much of each of those things goes into each individual's, ability to to function in their daily job. And usually that's a consultation with the mentor that is assigned by our college and the chair. So we talk before they talk to the mentee. And, uh, and really trying to make sure people are are guided. There's --there shouldn't be any challenge in that march towards tenure and promotion, if it's done the right way.

[00:20:44] Lauren Ullrich: 

[00:20:44] Ishmail Abdus-Saboor: One add on there for committee work-- a committee that is good for junior faculty is the seminar committee, because there you can invite outside speakers, maybe someone you've been meaning to collaborate with 

or thinking about senior people who may be tenure letter writers, and you want a little more access to this person. So, getting on that committee, you know, is a good use of your time, I would say, as a junior faculty member to kind of get your name out there and build your reputation.

[00:21:11] Katie Wilkinson: And I also think it's helpful to even at the very beginning to think about sort of your vision for service. Are there certain things that you're really interested in contributing to? Because those are going to be tasks that are going to be a little less onerous and also maybe can, you know, fill your cup in other ways or help you move towards your, your ultimate goals. And also, you know, everyone does have to contribute to the department or the university. You have to be a good citizen, um, to continue your job. So, trying to find those service tasks that you feel like you can really contribute to will make your job a lot more pleasant, but also allow you to say no to things that you really don't want to do if you're contributing in other ways.

[00:21:57] Marguerite Matthews: Do any of you have a problem saying no, or have had problems saying no? 

[00:22:01] Katie Wilkinson: Yes. [laughs]

[00:22:02] Jack Lipton: I take on way too many things, but I enjoy it. 

[00:22:06] Marguerite Matthews: I can relate. 

[00:22:07] Ishmail Abdus-Saboor: Yeah. Early on, some advice I got was to just blame it on the department chair. 

[00:22:13] Marguerite Matthews: [laughs] 

[00:22:13] Ishmail Abdus-Saboor: Say, "I would love to do this thing, but my department chair says I should not take on any more'. So, then you just pass the buck a little bit and you feel less bad about telling people no.

[00:22:24] Jack Lipton: That's safe; I like that move. 

[00:22:26] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah. Um so speaking of tenure, I was wondering if we could talk first, maybe a little bit about the difference in tenure expectations at a PUI versus like an R1. We alluded to them earlier, but maybe just sort of clearly lay those out. And then also, you know, how do junior faculty find out what the expectations are at their specific institution? Are they very clearly stated? Is it very obvious or is it something that you kind of need to read between the lines and have, you know, somebody in the know guiding you? 

[00:23:06] Katie Wilkinson: So at SJSU, I think the stated balance that we're supposed to have sort of is 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service. That varies very much even from year to year or from times of year.

 But it is very explicit that all 3 legs of the academic stool are really valued at SJSU. So, if you're not a good teacher, you know, it's not the right place for you. You do have to start up your research lab and you do have to contribute to service. I'd say in general, though, our culture is very supportive of people. We don't actually have a high rate of tenure denials. Um, in terms of how explicit the bar that you have to make is, that's been changing a lot over the 11 years that I've been here. When I started it was a, it was a lot more vague um, now they've made more explicit modifiers of what counts as excellent or good or baseline in each of the three areas. Um, so I think that that is positive, but it doesn't actually do anyone any good to have them be too prescriptive. Because even in my department of biological sciences, you know, an ecologist versus a bench scientist will have very different measures of productivity or, or needs for funding to do their work.

And so saying, you need X number of dollars or X number of papers really benefits no one. 

[00:24:30] Jack Lipton: We typically start all of our research intensive faculty off with an offer letter that's most likely going to say something like 90% research, 5% instruction, 5% service. And then that fluctuates and changes based upon how things change. But that's their baseline start.

 When we talk about tenure, we talk about consistent publication, you know, a couple of first or senior author papers a year. If it doesn't happen in a particular year and you have a couple more in the next year, totally fine because we don't publish on an annual basis, right? Things, things sometimes come in clumps and we don't worry about that too much. We, we do stress the need to have consistent funding. It doesn't necessarily mean that you have all the funding that you would need every single year, but we generally have an expectation of on average, kind of a rolling average of 50% coverage of your salary on on extramural grants.

That is an expectation that's based upon how our unit is funded. The college gives us 57% of the salaries. And so if people bring in about 50, there's an extra 7 in there, they give us other funds as well, but just in terms of how that works, the economics are designed such that individuals have to bring in salary coverage.

Now, that has typically been pretty easy for our faculty to consistently do. And in some years, and sometimes for several years, people don't meet that, but it's not a stigma, um, as much as you're looking at this trajectory, right? You might not get to that 50% when you're going up for tenure, but if you have 30% and the next year you had 40% and you're a co investigator in your later years along with being a PI on your own grant, looking at the trajectory is more important than hitting the goal. So, that's really an important aspect of it. 

And I think that sometimes we have non traditional faculty who are working in areas that do not generate as much, um, extramural funding, and that's fine. We have some community based research that that goes on in our department. And often that just requires a little bit of extra effort working with those junior faculty on how they summarize their work, how they demonstrate that value, and then the chair's letter is often one of the most valuable letters when it comes to the tenure decision, making sure that your chair understands your work and can articulate it well. And the value that you bring to the institution is really critical in those decisions at the college and university level.

[00:26:58] Ishmail Abdus-Saboor: Yeah, I would say, uh, I'm, I'm pre-tenure so take everything with a grain of salt [laughter] but here at, at Columbia University, I would say it, borders more on the vagueness and not so prescriptive. The, the thing that you just keep hearing is reputation. You know, it's all about your reputation and standing in the field, and that's quite nebulous and can be hard to define. And I think it's purposefully vague so that you realize that there are many ways to get to a point where you have sort of, national notoriety for your work.

For example, some people have gone through tenure and they have 15 to 20 papers. Um, and some people have gone through no problem with just one to two papers, maybe sort of bigger papers. Some people have a lot of federal funding, some people not as much. I mean, no two cases kind of look the same.

 So, for us, we need a lot of letters. And in our handbook, you can see, like, the solicitation letter that goes to your tenure writers about, you know, what they're asked to comment on. One of the things they ask is, you know, is this person one of the top five to seven people in this field, okay? And if they are not, do they have the potential to be one of those top five in the next, you know, X amount of years? So you're trying to position yourself to be in that top 5 to 10 people, or at least show a trajectory that you will get there one day. So, um, yeah, it can be a little scary when you don't have like a formula for what actually needs to be done, but I think, you know, if you look to the people who recently got tenure, I think that's kind of the best barometer for for you to judge where you need to be when you go up for a promotion. 

[00:28:49] Marguerite Matthews: It also sounds like something you can discuss while you're interviewing, right? Like if you feel like you need more parameters and you like having some of those very specific type of metrics, 

 it sounds like just also thinking about institution type um, or predominantly undergraduate institution versus an R1, certain types of, um, tenure requirements may be more attractive to someone at one institution versus another.

[00:29:12] Ishmail Abdus-Saboor: I was recently visiting with a few junior faculty and we were having this conversation, you know, what are the expectations? And they said, we have the, uh, the alien abduction test, is what the senior faculty tell us. If you were to be abducted by aliens, 

[00:29:26] Marguerite Matthews: [ laughs]

Oh my gosh.

[00:29:27] Ishmail Abdus-Saboor: would anyone miss you? [laughs]

[00:29:29] Marguerite Matthews: I don't know if anyone would miss me, but they would certainly know that I am missing. 

[00:29:35] Lauren Ullrich: [laughs] Oh, we would miss you, Marguerite. 

[00:29:37] Marguerite Matthews: Aw. 

[00:29:37] Lauren Ullrich: We should probably ask that, that question in our solicitation for external reviewers. I, I like the alien abduction test. [laughter] Pretty cool. 

[00:29:45] Katie Wilkinson: And I'd also say, um, that things can change at the institution from the time that you're hired to later. And so, even if you come in under some certain expectation, it might not always stay that way.

I think earlier in my career, I really wanted more specifics about tenure. And now, it actually seems more limiting. So junior faculty in my department, you know, we've been trying to write tenure guidelines to help guide our tenure committees and tell them what exactly it is that we do and what we value.

And I think there's some, there's definitely some benefit in some generalized things, but where it's really hard is coming up with actual quantification or tables, because you don't actually really want to do that. And the resources at your institution may change, when you have a different administration come in or different goals.

You know, the 5 year plan for your institution is to increase research productivity, which is what happened to my institution after I got here. And so, of course, the people coming in behind me, they have more course releases than I did when I was pre tenure. So, of course, the expectations are a little higher now, but when they were hired, maybe that wasn't explained to them.

So, I think no matter what you do, this is one of the more stressful parts of our job, which is why it's really important to find faculty mentors, I think, to try to share some of the unwritten stuff and help you focus on the most important things. 

[00:31:08] Marguerite Matthews: Those are some great points, Katie. Thank you. 

[00:31:10] Jack Lipton: Yeah. I agree with Katie on this issue of the nebulousness, the same thing that Ishmail said. You never know what combinations of attributes are going to be the thing that everyone, uh, agrees in consensus is a person that you want to have tenure and be promoted to that, to that next level.

So why try and limit yourself with rules that that do not allow the unique combination of skills that you value so much to become a permanent part of your institution. 

[00:31:38] Ishmail Abdus-Saboor: One thing, at least here, I've talked to, like, some department chairs, it used to be a thing where like you needed two R01 grants, for example, to go up. But now that's the case less and less because people do realize NIH paylines are at like all time lows. So people are trying really hard and it's been more challenging for people to hit that two R01 limit. And there are other funding, you know, opportunities.

There are big collaborative grants that they're bringing big dollars. NIGMS has the MIRA grant. So I think people are funding their, their labs in different ways, more so than just the traditional R01 and I think universities are starting to understand that a little bit more and kind of relax this hard and fast rule for a certain type of grant funding. 

[00:32:22] Marguerite Matthews: Speaking of which, Ish, you just kicked the door in to this topic, funding. What are the expectations of getting funding? Um, and how do you go about it? Do you start off kind of small, you know, tin cupping it, getting a little foundation grant here, a foundation grant there, and then building up to applying for sort of larger funding through the NIH or do you just sort of set your eyes on the big grant or the, the grant that's fairly large at your institution and go for it, um, once you have the data?

[00:32:55] Jack Lipton: So I would say that for the most part, we want individuals to apply for the types of grants that are either convenient or meet with their needs at the time. It doesn't necessarily mean rushing into an R01. Often our our faculty will go for Alzheimer's Association grants because they're doing Alzheimer's work, they're going to Michael J. Fox for Parkinson's disease, and working through those kinds of awards, uh, especially with a good network of faculty like we have that have prior funding with those foundations is is often a good way to go. I'll often hear from junior faculty when they are ready to write an NIH grant that they're going to write for an R21.

I'm like, why are you writing for an R21? 

[00:33:41] Lauren Ullrich: Booooo [laughter]

[00:33:44] Jack Lipton: "It's exploratory!" I'm like, no, it's not. And it's a lot of work, the paylines are worse than for an R01 and, uh, you will be out of money before you go on vacation twice. 

[00:33:57] Marguerite Matthews: It's a big misconception that Lauren especially has been on a crusade about letting people know what the deal is.

[00:34:03] Lauren Ullrich: This is my soapbox. 

[00:34:05] Jack Lipton: It's really, um, people often want to take half measures, right? If they're not feeling sure about themselves and the work that they're trying to do, and they're like, "People will get mad at me if I apply for an R01." Like, no, apply for an R01. That's what you're supposed to do. It's a research project grant.

Do you have the data? Do you have compelling data for part of the work? Try and make a convincing argument for it and get other funds during that time, including internal funds. We have plenty of internal funds to compete for through endowments and, uh, you know, figure it out and then go for the big grant.

Don't waste your time on the two year NIH grants. 

[00:34:41] Marguerite Matthews: Especially if you're still within that ESI window, you might as well use that to your advantage while you can. 

[00:34:47] Jack Lipton: Absolutely. 

[00:34:48] Lauren Ullrich: And just to be clear here, ESI stands for early stage investigator and ESI status means that you are within 10 years of your terminal degree or within 10 years of finishing your clinical training. And a lot of institutes have better pay lines for those who have ESI status, but only for the R01. That ESI status does not apply to an R21 application, so you're wasting your ESI window and that payline bump for the R01, trying to get the R21 grant that's clearly inferior to the R01.

[00:35:27] Katie Wilkinson: At the beginning, I applied for a lot of internal grants, both the SJSU and CSU level. And so these were smaller awards, five to 15 thousand dollars, but they helped me float along.

Um, I should also say that I'm hard money. So I get a 10 month salary. I can pay myself in the summer, which is obviously a great thing, but it's a very different calculus than, um, if you have to bring in your own funding, but I started pretty early trying to apply for the NIH or NSF grants that were, um, for my institution.

So they used to be called the SCORE grants. Now, they're the SuRE grants for minority serving institutions, um, the R15s for primarily undergrads, or the RUIs at NSF. Thankfully, there was not actually a requirement for external funding for tenure because, um, I, I got my first big grant the year I went through to tenure.

And so I like to tell my junior faculty in my department, you know, it took me 9 times, but, you know, you just got to keep trying. The paylines are not great, collecting preliminary data with just undergrads and a few master students can be very challenging. So you just got to keep, um, trying.

[00:36:35] Jack Lipton: Yeah, if I can make one mention, Katie mentioned and talked about hard money.

I think that that's really important. There are more and more positions that are showing up that are you know, hybrid hard, we'll tenure a part of your salary or things like that. I think it's really important to find a place that really is hard money and provides you with that salary regardless of the expectations for salary coverage. Like, where we are, we have a rough expectation, but none of that affects your salary, right? The idea is you're, you're helping to drive the economics of of the group. You're not worrying about whether your salary is going to get reduced. So I think that those issues are counterproductive when you're seeking grants and external support. I think that those things lead to people having second thoughts about interpreting their data in particular ways. And I think that people don't need that kind of, uh, temptation or stress in their lives when they're trying to do good, unbiased scientific investigation.

[00:37:32] Ishmail Abdus-Saboor: I agree fully. Yeah, I'm in a hard money nine month salary position and it's great. I teach an undergraduate course, you know, once per year, but I love it. So like, I have the best of both worlds. I'm in a research institute, but I do have an appointment on the undergrad campus in biology. So best of both worlds, I would say for me.

[00:37:51] Lauren Ullrich: One of the other sort of, um, currencies of tenure is the publication side, right? Like, that's how you're demonstrating your productivity and it's what you have to show for all this work that you've been putting in. So, what would you say are, like, common issues that junior faculty might encounter in the publication space, um, and how should they navigate them?

I'm thinking about how to handle authorship, especially if you're doing a lot of collaborations, um, making sure your contributions are counted fairly, making a decision for yourself whether you want to do the little publications along the way or hold it for that one big one. Like, how do you, how do you navigate those things? 

[00:38:38] Katie Wilkinson: Okay, I guess, um, so the research context I'm in is a little different. So, there's no mention of impact factor or anything on any of the guidelines moving forward in my institution, which I really appreciate. So that's not necessarily a motivating factor for where we decide to send our papers. Quite frankly, page charges would be a higher motivating factor for, uh, me.

I think one of the big things that we are encouraged to do is include undergraduate and master's students in our scholarship. And so in terms of collaborations, I've been very lucky. I've collaborated with some really great people. But the collaborations were pretty clear from the start. My lab has a technique that's fairly useful. We're pretty good at it. So we do a part of a much bigger piece. So the only thing that I really feel like I need to negotiate there is just making sure to explain why the undergrads that have been working on the project deserve authorship. It seems if you're in a different lab, you put one grad student on it and they do everything. And projects that have gone on for four years or something, well students are graduating. And so you have to rotate more people on. So That's something that I've, I've learned I have to explain a little bit more. 

For my tenure committees one thing that's very important, has been to explain my contribution to whatever paper is in my file and also what it means to the field and you know, putting it into context for people a little bit more. 

Yeah, I would just say publications are our main currency. We're not told where to publish here, you know, told to do impactful science, but there's no prescription on the journal name. People are really reading the papers and seeing you know, what you've been able to accomplish.

[00:40:24] Ishmail Abdus-Saboor: I remember talking to some junior faculty and one frustration that some junior faculty have is that, you know, you produce a body of work from your own lab and you may target it for a certain journal and you know, they may not take it and people say, "oh, if I were in my postdoc mentor's lab and they were the senior author, this would go out for review and this would have been accepted easily. But now they're like, you know, "who the hell is this person?" So, that's one uphill battle you kind of have is establishing your own reputation and credibility to kind of get to the point where you can hit certain journals. 

You mentioned collaboration, too. And I think that's another concern for junior faculty. And one, one thing, you know, I like to collaborate where it makes sense. But I was also cognizant about trying not to collaborate with, um, the most senior people in my field, for a number of reasons, one of which is that if I collaborate with this person who knows me well and respects my work, the moment we publish a paper together, then they can't write a letter for me. So, tried not to publish with these people. 

And then too like, I do realize that there are just certain names that, you know, are so big in my field of pain and touch neurobiology that even if, like, my lab were to, like, generate most of the work, this person's name is so big that they would say, "Oh, that's so and so's paper," even if they are like a middle author, you know, they would get the credit for it. 

[00:41:50] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah. 

[00:41:51] Ishmail Abdus-Saboor: I have to be cognizant of like, you know, the collaborations I've had have been really meaningful and good; I've collaborated at times with junior faculty. They contribute, answer emails, they're responsive, and there's no like debate that, you know, my contribution and their contribution uh, as well. 

And it can be a challenge, you know, knowing when to hold and when to fold, you know, when is a paper ready to put out there? Or when should we put a little bit more time to try to raise it to a higher impact factor. These are challenges, especially when you're thinking about your tenure clock, right? You know, some junior faculty I've seen who haven't been successful. They were waiting and waiting and waiting for like this big home run paper and the home run never was hit.

And then they look up and you know, they're out of a job because they don't have anything to show for all this time and investment. So, you have to know when to strike and not wait too long to get your work out there. 

[00:42:49] Jack Lipton: Yeah, when you were talking about issues of impact factor, Ishmail, um, and Katie, we don't really think about impact factor of a journal so much. I think more about how many times was your paper cited? I don't care what the average is in the journal. There are plenty of seminal findings that have occurred in, you know, working person's journals or society journals that are, uh, things that were rejected from the glamour magazines that we all apparently so value.

And, and I think it's that that cult of worship towards a few journals, which really sets people on the wrong track. 

Those things are fabulous to get if you get them, right? It's like surprise! That was great. They liked my paper. They took it and I have it. But if you're going to be defined through those, I think, um you're, you're going to be chasing fool's gold your whole career. And it's just not, not that important where we are.

 This other issue that you mentioned about working with senior authors, I know this is something that sometimes occurs in our unit, right? We have a junior faculty member who's, who's collaborating with one of our senior faculty. They are more senior in the field and more well known. And, the senior faculty doesn't care where they're put on the paper. They're like, where do you want me? You want me on the front, want me in the back, you want me in the middle.

And often you have junior faculty who are the primary drivers and they might be the ones in the lab doing the work. They're like, do I put myself as senior author? And then I don't really get credit as first author because I did that work. Who's going to sit on the front position? Or do I go first author and let my senior colleague be last author and then it looks like I'm, I'm working for them and, and I've seen a lot of hand wringing in that and there's no good answer.

Um, it's just ensuring that when, when we talk about them and when we are soliciting letters and trying to make sure that people know that, that we're promoting that paper appropriately. And making sure that people are showing the appropriate deference to the, to the primary driver of that work so that people don't have misconceptions is really important. 

[00:44:56] Ishmail Abdus-Saboor: Yeah, one thing related to that I remember, um, an issue I dealt with, we dealt with it amicably, but a number of junior faculty may have some holdover papers from their postdoc lab. And, uh, those are good to kind of tie up loose ends, but, you know, at least here, I was told for the papers that have your post doc mentor on them, we're just going to, like, cross them out and act like they don't exist.

I was in a scenario where it became a little bit more than tying up loose ends. And I was putting in a little bit more work in my junior faculty lab to help get my postdoc mentor's paper out. 

I can't really afford to be putting a lot of time and energy into a publication where, you know, I'm in the middle somewhere and it's from my postdoc mentor's lab. And sure, it's a few more citations in a cool journal, but it's not going to help me advance towards promotion. So, I had to kind of withdraw from that, you know, and I've seen some junior faculty struggle being able to, you know, kind of cut the cord from their post doc mentor.

And I think the best post doc mentors give their people space. Let, let people establish their own identity once they get promoted and get tenure. You all write grants and publish together. But during those first few years when they're ramping up, they kind of really need to show their own independence and create their own reputation independent of their former mentor.

[00:46:17] Lauren Ullrich: I want to talk about professional development, kind of broadly defined. Where can junior faculty find support for all of the kinds of skills that they're going to need to develop in order to be successful? And are these things available at your institution? Like, are there regional or national programs that you would recommend? How can junior faculty be successful um, on this side of things?

[00:46:51] Ishmail Abdus-Saboor: Well, you know, just before this meeting, I was in a career development training with this BRAINS fellowship; BRAINS is an NIH program, funded through NINDS. And uh, yeah, I entered that program as a postdoc in 2017, and I'm still benefiting from their mentorship.

Yeah, we just had a session on, like, how to spark creativity via rest and avoid burnout and things like that. So, um, yeah, this was a federally funded program that um, I was able to take advantage of. 

[00:47:18] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah, we love BRAINS.

[00:47:19] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah, I, I forced them to say that I was an honorary member of the BRAINS family, so. [laughs]

[00:47:26] Ishmail Abdus-Saboor: For sure. 

[00:47:27] Jack Lipton: I think a lot of it requires, um, networking and so there's part of it that's outside of, of your institution, right? And it's working with senior faculty and your immediate network to try and find people that can help you build certain skills. Let's say you eventually want to get involved in some society work, you know, helping to organize a, um, a symposium at a Gordon conference, right? Those kinds of things help, help you to build your network, help you to gain some organizational skills, um, and they're kind of discrete, right?

And they connect you in with someone and you can do it for a little while and then you can do a victory lap at a meeting and run your session. And there's some great value in those kinds of things. Um, those are one way in terms of developing your network outside, but inside your institution, like we have a lot of opportunities for professional development.

Our provost office gives grant writing workshops. We have, um, discussions about burnout issues relating to how to talk to people with a trauma informed perspective for students that are, are experiencing, um, trauma that were associated with anything from a shooting that happened at our university recently to issues around, um, relationship violence and sexual misconduct.

So there's all kinds of ways to take crisis based professional development and then standard, "how do I become a better mentor?" and all of that occurs through our mentoring programs, plus the professional development opportunities that we offer. 

There's also the Big 10 academic alliance, which I believe changed its name recently, but I'm too old to remember what it is now. And they offer opportunities across, um, across the big 10 getting faculty together from those schools and sharing best practices. And those that are interested in getting involved in administrative work, perhaps you want to, you want to look at being an associate chair at a certain point in the future or being an associate dean in a particular area, they will offer up at the same time that you're going through your career development these kind of discrete 3 or 4 day intense workshops where you can go and learn how to communicate and manage individuals. And those those things can be used in in the laboratory setting as well as a manager. But I think getting those kinds of management skills, dealing with conflict resolution, dealing with managing people, time management, uh, communicating appropriately when you're dealing with less than, than polite individuals in your institution. All of those are really valuable to your career over time. 

[00:49:58] Katie Wilkinson: We have a pretty active center for faculty development that will offer workshops, um, which can be very helpful. I found in general, it'll take more of your time, but the more sustained programs tend to be more bang for your buck than the one off workshops.

So, this year, I was participating in a faculty learning community about asset based approaches to instruction, which was just really great, because, we were given a course release, there was time every other week where you're working with other instructors, and so I think sometimes it's kind of hard to commit to something so long term, but if it's something that's really valuable to you that's going to be an overall more valuable experience.

That being said, there are some of the short term things you know, some technology or something that you want to learn, usually there's some place that can give you some training in that, um, which will be a lot faster than you Googling everything, at least if you're me. 

Um, and actually one of the more helpful professional development groups, when I was a junior faculty, a colleague started a writing accountability group. So we would all get together once a week and she even had like a point system. You got so many points for, you know, so many hours of writing. And there was no, there are no prizes or anything, but we're academics, right? So, of course, you don't want to not come and not get any points. Um, so I think finding something like that is really helpful, especially in the beginning.

[00:51:23] Jack Lipton: One of the things that we do in our department, we have some faculty that are getting kind of towards the end of of their career and moving towards retirement and we've focused a lot of their efforts on helping our junior faculty to write their papers and write their grants; not writing them for them but basically being their accountabil-a-buddy and sitting down and saying, "Okay, so you want to get this grant out in four months?

We're going to set up a 12 week plan, and next week we're going to look at your outline and then we're going to look at your next piece." And developing those kinds of opportunities for senior faculty that are looking at transitioning out of the active PI scholarship, uh, work that they've been doing for 35 or 40 years and, and having them work with junior faculty in a way that, that individuals, um, often don't have time to do, right?

[00:52:17] Marguerite Matthews: Mmhmm 

[00:52:17] Jack Lipton: So you can have a senior mentor, they're like, "I'm busy. I'm trying to keep my lab running." These individuals, we're giving them half their time to do this kind of work and, and have the intellectual space in their heads to work with, with individuals and help them to not procrastinate and not move towards the furious, uh, scribbling that, that you will end up doing when you get to your deadline, like we all do as humans.

Um, so we've been piloting that for the last year and it's been very useful and it helps people to decrease their stress. So anything you can do, whether it's in your unit or your college, your university, or outside. Find quality programs. 

[00:52:52] Marguerite Matthews: That's very resourceful. 

[00:52:54] Ishmail Abdus-Saboor: Yeah, that's great. I would just, uh, yeah, we have something similar like that for, for junior faculty.

It's been formalized. I have a team of six people. They, they read all of my papers, grants. We meet one on one. I mean, interviews, like everything. These six people pour a lot of time and energy into making sure that I'm successful.

So that's been a great part of my experience here as a junior faculty. [music] 


[00:53:24] Marguerite Matthews: Well, thank you all for sharing your wisdom with us today. Can I ask each of you to share one last piece of parting advice? 

[00:53:32] Ishmail Abdus-Saboor: The one piece of parting advice I would say is to have fun. Like never forget, like, why you got into science. I didn't get into science to publish papers or awards or get tenure.

I got into science because I love the thrill and passion and joy of discovery. That's the thing that got me hooked as a kid. And I always try to, like, go back to that, that compass, to that, that set point. And throughout all the things we discussed and the careerism and planning, like, I just always try to get back to that point and making sure, like, I'm having fun doing what I'm doing.

As long as I get back to that point, you know, I do think that this is one of the greatest things one could be doing with their time. I feel extremely privileged and honored to do what I'm able to do. 

[00:54:19] Jack Lipton: I can speak as a, as a chair, and reflect what, what Ishmail said.

As you're looking for, for junior faculty positions, find a place that is going to allow you to have fun. Find a place that is going to set up safe spaces for you to function in the ways that you need to excel. Don't settle for a place that is going to, to wring you out. Really look for a place that's supportive and is going to let you have that fun and is really there to support your success, not to see whether you can make it to tenure, you know. You want places that are invested in you and are like, we, we believe in you, we are putting our time and our resources into your development, and we think that you're going to make our institution a better place to work.

[00:55:05] Katie Wilkinson: And my last piece of advice is to find a good support system and not just the support system at work, but also make sure that you're doing things that you love and enjoy outside of work and have, whether it's family or friends support. Um, because it can be a really hard journey, no matter what. And so it's helpful to make sure that you ground yourself and, you're not just a professor, you have another life. And then also make sure you find colleagues at all levels, peers that can help, you know, commiserate when things are going not so well and also more senior faculty that can help, um, give you a little bit of perspective as you're going through. 

[00:55:43] Marguerite Matthews: And if you don't have that outside support, you should go on a hike in Atlanta [laughs] to meet that support. [laughter] 

[00:55:52] Katie Wilkinson: Right. 

[00:55:52] Marguerite Matthews: Lauren, what's your advice? 

[00:55:55] Lauren Ullrich: So I think, kind of echoing what Ishmail and Jack were saying, the theme of this episode is how to succeed as a junior faculty. And I think the answer we've been talking around this whole episode is "it depends." Um, it depends on what your goals are, and it depends on, you know, what your institution's goals are, and so just being very intentional that those two things align, um, and, you know, if it's not working out, you can go to a different institution. So, you know, don't feel like just because most people stay at the same institution for their careers that you have to, if there is a mismatch, like there are ways to, um, to move pre or post tenure.

So, uh, Marguerite, what about you?

[00:56:51] Marguerite Matthews: I, along those lines, I would say it's also going to be really important to have trusted mentors and perhaps a little bit more senior colleagues who have been through this process. And will allow you to bounce some ideas off of them. "Do you think I'm, you know, I might be taking on too much if I try to do this?" Or "this is what I was thinking about in terms of prioritizing. What, what do you think?" And ultimately, you are going to be the conductor of your train, but having other people who have been there, done that, made that mistake or perhaps have seen the mistake made and can say, "Hey, I really think you should think about this" and at least give you more information to make decisions that are not going to make you feel regret.

Um, I think you're probably going to be overwhelmed no matter what, just in terms of all the many things that you're going to be juggling to get your lab off the ground and working towards tenure, but that is sort of part of the journey, right? And so being overwhelmed shouldn't be something you're afraid of, but certainly making sure that you're making good decisions along the way, or the best decision for you at that time.

And if you need to change the plan, um, pivot, there's always that option as well. And, I think having good counsel and good guidance along the way will make that process hopefully a little bit easier. [music]

[00:58:17] Lauren Ullrich: That's all we have time for today on Building Up the Nerve. So thank you again to our guests this week for sharing their expertise, thank you to Mariah Hoye and Ana Ebrahimi for production help, and thank you to Bob Riddle for our theme song and music. We'll see you next time when we tackle succeeding as mid career faculty. You can find past episodes of this podcast and many more resources on the web at 

[00:58:47] Marguerite Matthews: Be sure to follow us on Twitter @NINDSDiversity and @NINDSFunding. You can email us with questions at Be sure to subscribe to the podcast on Apple podcasts or your favorite podcast app, so you don't miss an episode. We'll see you next time.