Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The five year plan redux

Rounding into about my fifth year on the job as a PI, I've started to look back and think about how I made it to this point. This will probably be a series of posts as the ideas jump into my head, but today I've been wondering about how a lab's research focus changes.

Five years ago I sat down and thought about a five year plan for my lab. I was just coming off of a postdoc using comparative genomics to study virulence evolution in the plant pathogen Pseudomonas syringae. Given that I was (and still am) in a Plant Sciences department, I thought that it would be a good idea to continue studying virulence in P. syringae, and I knew that there were some interesting/safe results left to mine from my postdoc data. In parallel, I was thinking that I wanted to get back into studying experimental evolution of microbial populations. I actually chose the lab for my postdoc in order to get experience with Pseudomonas with the hope of eventually setting up such systems. For my "riskier" projects I wanted to use experimental evolution to look at the effects of horizontal gene transfer on adaptation.

For a couple or three years I followed my plan. I've been able to publish a few papers on virulence in P. syringae. I've got my experimental evolution system up and running and have published some of the necessary background work. There remain a bunch of different paths that I can follow for either of those two projects that I am exciting to try and follow up on.

The amazing thing to me though is that I'm not currently funded to do any of that. I've written numerous grants (20?) for these projects across multiple agencies, but they just haven't been successful. A few of these grants came REEEAAAALLLYYYYY close to funding, but just didn't make the cut. Getting any of these grants would have been great, but I think my research program is actually stronger because of those failures. Sure, every rejection email sucks, but I was constantly evaluating and reevaluating research directions. For the plant pathogen work, there was a lot of competition and my grants (even though they were solid I think) just didn't stand out because there were many other labs doing approximately similar things. The experimental evolution work just didn't seem to hit the right chord to the right people, again and again and again.

I've been lucky to get a handful of grants recently, but none of these projects was on my radar five years ago. One of the funded projects started out as a random email question between Betsy Arnold and I in about year 2 of my lab and has blossomed incredibly since then. It's one of those exciting projects where we find a new result every week or so, yet every thing about the system remains pretty black-boxish. Another newly funded project started as an observation by my postdoc Kevin Hockett around year 3 of the lab. He started out playing around with diverse strains of P. syringae, seeing how these strains interacted with one another. We kept pushing the genetics of the system because nothing published could explain the results. Turns out we stumbled into a really cool evolutionary story.

The point of this whole post is that I had a plan, but the plan necessarily changed. Since grad school, I've imagined how my research career would look. Never did I think I'd end up in a Plant Sciences department (there are pluses and minuses, but that's a post for another time). The questions I thought my lab would be focusing on have fallen to the wayside. I'm still quite interested in them and have a variety of undergrads plowing ahead, but they aren't on the forefront anymore. The projects that have been successfully funded came together after I spent a couple of years focused on completely different topics. I'm an N of 1, and I have no idea if my story is shared by other researchers, but there are so many posts about how to be a PI that I figure I'd share this data point. I have no clue what the future truly holds, but I'm just going to keep being curious about the world because it's been good to me so far.


  1. David, great post and thanks for sharing your experience!

    Given that you ended up on a trajectory far outside your plans, was it not worth having a plan in the first place? Or is "having a poor plan better than no plan"?

    Looking back, are there things that you could have planned better? Maybe scientific directions are unpredictable, but the overall structure of the lab for example.

    1. Hi Tony, Thanks!

      A few different answers to your questions off the top of my head. I think that planning out the near and mid term future is always a good thing to do because it forces you to assess yourself. That being said, I've always tried to have multiple irons in the fire at any given time research-wise. Does this mean I'm constantly working on all projects, no, but it means that something is always happening in the lab. I should say I'm also in the lab every day doing these little side projects and seeing what's worth following up on. I don't really include the side projects in planning other than to list them, just because I'm not sure what's going to work and what's not going to work. A lot of things have failed and I've just dropped them for the given time. Maybe I'll pick it up again later if I read a related paper or something, maybe not. This is all to say that planning is very useful, but we have to be cautious about falling in love with the projects that are "our babies" because those might not be fundable yet. The trick is figuring out when to downshift and really focus on something else.

      Could I have planned the lab better? I'm not really sure only because I'm still finding my managerial style five years in. There's a lot of on the job training. I know a lot more now about what type of students can thrive in my lab, but that's something that everyone has to figure out over time for themselves. I hope that I've gotten better at mentoring my students, but I'm still learning and banking important experiences in that regard. Lab structure inherently also changes over time. For my first few years I had a tremendous technician. He had to move on when the money ran out so I had to figure out ways to fill that gap. I suspect that I'll constantly have to reinvent how I run the lab as students and postdocs cycle through.

      Echoing the sentiment above, I think it's always a good idea to map out how you want your lab to run and what kinds of structures might work for you. However, that plan should be flexible and be able change with your own experiences. Even if I think I'm "full" in terms of undergrads, I'll interview everyone who's interested and I won't turn down someone who blows me away. There's always ways to find emotional energy and time for people that are worth it.


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