Tips from the Blog V: Advice for New PIs

I recently gave a talk at a retreat for new PIs working at QMUL. My talk was focussed on tips for getting started, i.e. the nitty gritty of running an efficient lab. It was a mix of things I’ve been told, worked out for myself or that I’d learned the hard way.

PIs are expected to be able to do lots of things that can be full-time jobs in themselves. In my talk, I focussed on ways to make yourself more efficient to give yourself as much time to tackle all these different roles that you need to take on. You don’t need to work 80 hours a week to succeed, but you do need to get organised.

1. Timelines

Get a plan together. A long-term (5 -year) plan and a shorter (1-2 year) plan. What do you want to achieve in the lab? What papers do you want to publish? How many people do you need in the lab? What grants do you need? When are your next three grant applications due? When is the first one due? Work back from there. It’s January, the first one is due in September, better get that paper submitted! You need a draft application available for circulation to colleagues in good time to do something about the comments. Plan well. Don’t leave anything to the last minute. But don’t apportion too much time as the task will expand to fill it.

Always try to work towards the big goals. It’s too easy to spend all of your time on “urgent” things and busywork (fire-fighting). Prioritise Important over Urgent.

2. Time audit

Doing a time audit is a good way to identify where you are wasting time and how to reorganise your day to be more effective. Do you find it difficult to write first thing in the morning? If so, why not deal with your email or paperwork first thing since it requires less brain activity. Can you work during your commute? Save busywork for then. Can you switch between lab work and desk work well? Where are you fitting in teaching and admin? Try and find out answers to these questions with a time audit. It’s a horrible corporate thing to do, but I found it worked for me.

3. Lab manual

This was a popular idea. Paul Nurse’s lab had one – so should yours! The Royle lab manual has the following sections:

  • Lab organisation
  • Molecular Biology
  • Cell Biology
  • Biochemistry
  • Imaging

The lab organisation section has subsections on 1) how to keep a lab book; 2) lab organisation (databases, plasmid/antibody organisation); 3) computers/data storage; 4) lab calculations; 5) making figures. The other sections are a collection of our tried-and-tested protocols. New protocols are submitted to a share on the server and honed until ready for preservation in the Lab Manual. The idea is that you give the manual to all new starters and get them to stick to it and to consult the manual first when troubleshooting. People in the lab like it, because they are not left guessing exactly what you expect of them.

As part of this. You need to sort out lab databases and a lab server for all of the data. One suggestion was to give one person in the lab the job of looking after (a.k.a. policing) the databases and enforcing compliance. We don’t do this and instead do spot checks every few weeks/months to ensure that things haven’t drifted too far.

Occasionally, and at random, I’ll ask all lab members to bring their lab books to our lab meeting. I ask everyone to swap books with someone else. I then pick a random date and ask person X to describe (using the lab book) what person Y did on that day. It’s a bit of fun, but makes people realise how important keeping a good lab book is.

4. Tame your email

There are lots of tips on how to do this – find something that works for you. For example, I set up several filters/rules that move messages that are low importance away from my inbox. I flag messages and deal with them later if they will take more than 5 sec to deal with. I’ve tried checking at specified times of the day – doesn’t work well for me – but it might for you. Out-of-hours email is a problem. Just remember that no email is so urgent that it cannot wait until the morning – otherwise they would phone you.

5. Automation

Again there are lots of tips out there, e.g. in this post from Sylvain Deville. I have set up macros for routine things like exporting figures in a variety of formats/resolutions and assembling them with a manuscript file to one PDF for circulating around the lab for comment. We have workflows for building figures and writing papers. Anything that you do frequently is worth automating.

6. Deposit your plasmids with Addgene

They’ll distribute them for you! This saves a lot of time. You still get to check who is requesting them if you are curious.

7. Organising frequently-used files

Spend some time making some really good schematic figures. The can be used reused and rejigged time and again for a variety of purposes – talks, manuscripts etc. It’s worth doing this well and with a diagram that is definitely yours and not plundered from the web. Also, never retype text instructions – save them somewhere and just cut-and-paste. Examples include: answers for common questions from students, details of how to do something in the lab, details of how to get to the lab, brief biography, abstracts for talks…

Have a long-format CV always ready, keep updating it (I’ve not found a good way to automate this, yet). I get asked for my CV all the time for lots of different things. Have the long (master) CV set up so that you can delete sections as appropriate, depending on the purpose. Use the publication list from this for pasting into various boxes that you are required to fill out. An Endnote smart list of all of your papers is also handy for rapidly formatting a list of your papers according to different styles. Try to keep your web profiles up-to-date. If you publish a new paper add to your CV and all of your profiles so they don’t look out of date. ORCiD, Researchfish, whatever, try and keep them all current.

Get a slidedeck together of all your slides on a topic. Pull from here to put your talks together. Get a slidepack together to show to visitors to the lab at a moment’s notice. Also, when you publish a new paper, make slides of the final figure versions and add them to the master slidedeck.

8. Alerts

Set up literature alerts. My advice would be don’t have these coming to your inbox. Use RSS. This way you can efficiently mark interesting papers to look at later and keep your email free of clutter. Grab feeds for your favourite journals and for custom pubmed searches. Not just for subject keywords but also for colleagues and scientists who you think do interesting work. Set up Google Scholar to send you papers that have cited your work. Together with paper recommendations from Twitter (or maybe some other services – PubChase etc.) you’ll be as sure as you can be that you’re not missing anything. Also grab feeds from funding agencies, so that you don’t miss calls for grant applications. If all of these things are in place, you don’t need to browse the web which can be a huge time drain.

9. Synchronise

I have several computers synced via Unison (thanks to Daniel and Christophe who suggested this to me years ago). You can do this via Dropbox, but the space is limited. Unison syncs all my documents so that I am always able to work on the latest versions of things wherever I am. This is useful, if for some reason you cannot make it in to work unexpectedly.

10. Paper of the day

This has worked at some level to make sure that I am reading papers regularly. Posts about this here and here.

11. Make use of admin staff

If you have access to administrative staff get them to do as much of your paperwork as is feasible so you can concentrate on other things. And be nice to them! They can help a lot if you are really stuck with something, like an imminent deadline; or they can… be less helpful.

12. Be a good colleague

There’s a temptation to perform badly in tasks so that you don’t get asked again in order to reduce your workload. Don’t do this. It is true that if you are efficient, you will get asked to do more things. This is good (because not all tasks are bad). If you have too much to do, you just need to manage it. Say “No” if your workload is too high. But don’t just do a bad job. This pushes the problem onto your colleagues. If nothing else, you need their help. Also, help your colleagues if they need it. Always make yourself available to comment on their grants and papers. Interacting with colleagues is one of the most fun parts of being a PI.

13. Don’t write a book chapter

It’s a waste of time. Nobody will read it. Nobody will cite it. It will take time away from publishing real papers. Also, think carefully about writing review articles. If you have something unique to say, then go for it. Don’t do it just because you’ve been asked…

In need of some more advice?

atthehelmThis post was focussed on technicalities of running a lab to make things more efficient. There’s obviously lots more to it than this: people management, networking etc.

A great recommendation that I got after I had been a PI for a few years… this excellent book by Kathy Barker. At The Helm: Leading your laboratory. I read this and wished I’d found it earlier. The sections on early stage negotiations and planning for the moment you become a PI are great (although it is very US-centric).

I’ve also been told that the EMBO Course for New Investigators is great, although I have not attended it.

Update 12:15 13/7/15: A reader sent this link to me via email. It’s a document from HHMI on scientific management for Postdocs and New PIs. Well worth a read!!

Update 07:41 4/2/15: We now use Trello for organising activities in the lab. You can read about how we do that here. I added the lab book audit anecdote and fixed some typos.

Thanks to attendees of the QMUL ECR Retreat for your feedback on my talk. I also incorporated a few points from Kebs Hodivala-Dilke’s presentation, which was focussed more on the big picture points. If you have any other time-saving tips for PIs, leave a comment.