Ten Years Gone

Ten years ago today I became a PI. Well, that’s not quite true. On that day, I took up my appointment as a Lecturer at University of Liverpool, but technically I was not a PI. I had no lab space (it was under construction), I had no people, and I also had no money for research. I arrived for work. I was shown to a windowless office that I would share with another recent recruit, and told to get on with it. With what I should be getting on with, I was not quite sure.

So is this a cause for celebration?

By Rob Irgendwer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Rob Irgendwer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The slow start to my career as an independent scientist makes it a bit difficult to know when I should throw the party. I could mark the occasion of my lab finally becoming ready for habitation. This happened sometime in March 2007. Perhaps it should be when I did the first experiment in my new lab (April 2007). Or it could be when I received notification of my first grant award (Summer 2007), or when I hired the first person, a technician, in October 2007. It wasn’t until December of 2007 when my first postdoc arrived that the lab really got up-and-running. This was when I felt like I was actually a PI.

Looking back

In retrospect, I am amazed I survived this cold start to my independent career: effectively taking a year-long involuntary break from research. But I was one of the fortunate ones. I was hired at the same time as 6 other PIs-to-be. Over time it was clear that without good support some of us were going to fail. Sure enough, after 18 months, one switched to a career in grant administration in another country. Another left for a less independent position. One more effectively gave up on the PI dream and switched to full-time teaching. But there was success. Two of the other recruits landed grants early and were in business as soon as our labs were renovated. I also managed to get some money. The other person didn’t get a grant until years later, but somehow survived and is still running a group. So of 7 potential group leaders, only 4 ended up running a research group and the success of our groups has been mixed: problems with personnel, renewing funding…

Having a Plan B is probably a good idea. It’s well publicised that the conversion rate from PhD student to Professor is cited as 0.45% (from a 2010 report in the UK). It’s important to make new students aware of this. Maybe a one-in-200 chance sounds reasonable if they are full of confidence… but they need to realise that even they persevere down the academic route, they might indeed get a “group leader job” yet it still might not work out.

I had no Plan B.

I think there were many things that the University could have done differently to ensure more success among us new starters. The obvious thing would be to give a decent startup package. Recruiting as many people as possible with the money available gets lots of people, but gives them no resources. This isn’t a recipe for success.

Also, hiring seven people with completely unconnected research interests was not a smart thing to do. With nothing in common, any help we could give each other was limited. Moreover, only a few of us had genuine research links to established faculty. This made life even more difficult. Going over this in more detail is probably not appropriate here… I am grateful that I got hired, even if things were not ideal. Anyway, I survived this early phase and my lab began to grow…

Reasons to be cheerful

I have been very fortunate to have had some great people working in my group. The best thing about being a group leader is working with smart people. Seeing each develop as a scientist and progress in their careers… this is undoubtedly the highlight.

With talented people onboard, the group really got going and we began making discoveries. My top three papers which gave me most pleasure were not necessarily our biggest hitters. These are, in chronological order:

  1. Our first paper from the lab is special because it signified that we were “open for business”. This came in 2009. Fiona Hood and I showed (somewhat controversially) that two clathrin isoforms behaved similarly in cells depleted of endogenous clathrin.
  2. Dan Booth and Fiona worked together to find the spindle clathrin complex and show that it was a microtubule crosslinker. This paper was the main thing I was aiming to do when I setup my group.
  3. Anna Willox and I worked on one of my favourite papers showing that there are four interaction sites on the clathrin N-terminal domain. I love this paper because it was a side project for Anna. We made a prediction based on symmetry, and a large dollop of guesswork, which turned out to be right. Very satisfying.

Of course there were many more papers and I’m proud of them all. But these three stand out.

I’m also thankful that I’ve been able to keep the lab afloat financially. Thanks to Cancer Research UK, who funded my lab right at the start and still do today. Also thanks to Wellcome, BBSRC, MRC, North West Cancer Research who all funded important projects in my lab.

The other highlight has been interacting with other groups. There have been some great collaborations; most productively with Ian Prior in Liverpool and Richard Bayliss in Leeds, as well as other stuff which didn’t generate any papers but was still a lot of fun. Moving from Liverpool to Warwick in 2013 opened up so many new possibilities which I am continuing to enjoy immensely.

“The move” was the most significant event in the history of the Royle Lab. Many circumstances precipitated it, many of which are not appropriate to discuss here. However, the main driver was “being told to get on with it” right at the start. Feeling completely free to do whatever I wanted to do was absolutely fantastic and was one of the best things about my former University. Sometimes though, the best things are also the worst. I gradually began to realise that this freedom came because nobody really cared what I was doing or if my career was a success or not. I also needed more interactions with more cell biologists and this meant moving. Ironically, after I left, the University recruited a number of promising early career cell biologists all of whom I would have enjoyed working alongside.

If you have read this far, I am impressed!

Posts like this should probably end with some pithy advice. Except there’s none I have to offer to people just starting out. Ten years is a long time and a lot has changed. What worked back then probably doesn’t work now. Many of the mistakes I made, maybe you could dodge some of those, but you will make others. That’s OK, we’re all just making it up as we go along.

So, ten years of the Royle Lab (sort of). It’s been fun. I have the best job in the world and there’s lots to celebrate. But this post explains why I won’t be celebrating today.

The post title comes from “Ten Years Gone” by Led Zeppelin from their Double LP “Physical Graffiti”.


11 responses

  1. Great Album, great song, great title for a post! Interesting that Liverpool didn’t provide a decent start-up package. It seems that British universities generally are not good at this, regardless of the type of institution. Interesting also that the Royal Society uses “professor” in a very non-British way.

    1. Thanks for the comment Jeff. From what I can gather, start-up packages at UK universities have always been dire. I don’t claim to have my finger on the pulse, but I think that this has changed in recent years as Departments have realised that they need to invest properly in the careers of new recruits.

  2. I think its important that people realise that being a professor or lab leader isn’t necessary to both enjoy and be fulfilled in your academic job. Neither is it failure not to get there.

    The very nature of hierarchy’s mean you can only have a leader if there are lots of people supporting them.

    Indeed, in my perspective the supporting people are less replaceable than the leaders (but then maybe I’m bias)

    1. Thanks for the comment Adrian. This post was about being a lab leader not really about other career paths. Totally agree that it’s not a failure not to get there.

      1. Understood, it’s just people get hung up on that .45% statistic, but it’s not clear to me what the implications of that are.

  3. Interesting to see your perspective! Totally agree on start-up, there really wasn’t a huge amount I could do with £5000! One thing you haven’t included, probably because you have not had to do it, is reinventing oneself. I have had to do it twice now. Might make a very interesting case study to look at the group of us who started out on PhDs together (scarily almost 17 years ago to the day!).

    1. Thanks for the comment Rich. The case study idea is interesting. Seems that the rate of conversion was higher than the national average, but then we were at Cambridge, not fully representative, small sample etc etc.

      I’ve not needed to reinvent myself, not completely anyway. This must be an extra challenge on top of everything else!

  4. Thanks for this. A very good warts-and-all account, and a good counterpoint to the notion that success is an effortless rise to the top. The next instalment will be interesting to read… 😉

    1. Cheers Brooke. I’m pondering a commandment suggestion to comment over at your blog…

      1. Excellent! I’m SURE it [the list] can be refined. Looking forward to it, B.

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