The Members-In-Training Committee organizes the Research Spotlight Series. This Research Spotlight Series is designed to highlight notable members in CPDD and allow them to share their experiences and recommendations on how to be successful in the field of substance use and addictive disorders particularly with members in training or those who are new to the field.
Where/how do you get your inspiration for your next project?
Talking with others and attending meetings is critical to expanding research ideas, but I am most inspired when reading the literature. In reading, I have the time to really think about how new concepts may fit into my work. I am also inspired by the limitations of my own work. When I’m writing up results sometimes I hit a wall where I can’t make a point because I need more data, and the answer is not in the published literature. The exciting part is realizing that this is a place where my research can move in a new direction.
In the short-term, we all want to get grants and publish papers, but what do you/did you consider as your long-term career goals? (e.g. tenure, editor positions, directorship positions?)
At the moment, my long-term career goals are somewhat general in that I know the broad things I want. For instance, I want to move the field forward as best I can. I want to work in a collaborative environment, play a role in mentoring, and continue to grow as a scientist, laboratory director, and mentor. How I meet these goals may evolve over time and I try to stay open to opportunities.
Any tips? The work never ends, so what boundaries do you have in place to protect your personal time and your sanity?
It is easy to get caught in the trap of feeling like you should work all the time, even when important deadlines are not looming. For me, working non-stop is no way to live and work-wise it is not best for productivity. Whenever I feel guilty for not working I remind myself that my out of work goals are important too, and that taking a break will enhance my efficiency and productivity at work. Setting aside time, whether it is a weekend or a quick walk around the block can help me come at a problem with fresh eyes, allowing things to move forward more easily. As for practical tips, one is simply acknowledging that the work never ends and it is OK to leave things for tomorrow. At the end of the day instead of listing all the things left to do, I remind myself of what I accomplished. This shift in focus typically helps me realize that while I could work more, I have already been productive and a break will likely be helpful. Another thing I did a while ago was shut off email alerts on my phone, so I no longer have a list of all the unread e-mail coming in on my lock screen. I would have an email flash up and feel like I had to deal with it right away even if it could wait. Now, I have to make a conscious choice to check e-mail instead of having it interrupt whatever I am doing. The third thing that works for me is that I work on big projects like grant writing as far in advance as I can. While this isn’t always possible, by giving myself enough lead time I have more flexibility in terms of when I work because everything does not need to be crammed into a short time period.
In your experience, when is a better time to start a family? Should it be after you graduate, after completion of a post-doctoral fellowship, after completion of few years of first faculty position, or perhaps some other time?
There is no “right time” in terms of fitting in with a specific career stage. I had my daughter when I was supported by a K01, which was a good time for me, but I know others who have had children at earlier or later stages and they were successful. What worked well for me in terms of timing, was that I started my family when I had a solid support structure at work. The other helpful piece of advice I received, was timing the submission of papers and grants just prior to going on leave. That way, things are still moving forward with reviews and you can hit the ground running by responding to critiques when you return.
Was there a time in your career that you found particularly difficult, and how did you get through it?
I have been fortunate to have wonderful and supportive mentors who have helped me through each difficult time in my career. Whether I was struggling with a technical problem or something related to career development, I had people I could go to for advice and support. One example of a difficult time was when I began my postdoc in clinical neuroimaging, as this was a big change from the preclinical research I conducted as a grad student. This was an uncomfortable time for me, because I went from being proficient in the preclinical domain to once again needing a lot of training. Becoming a novice again was tough, but fortunately graduate school taught me both specific skills, and how to seek out help. Specifically, how not to be afraid to ask for help. No matter how much self-learning one can do, the advice and support of others is so critical and good mentors are happy to help students who are invested and motivated to learn.
Advice for young investigators
What advice would you give to a new grad student, a senior grad student, a new postdoc, or a new investigator?
The beginning of your career is exciting and challenging because the majority of tasks require you to both learn and do at the same time. So do not take on too much too quickly (remember you still need to plan for taking breaks too!) Focus first on the very specific tasks you need to do to be successful. Things will eventually become easier once you have the basics down and that is when new challenges can be added. As with any job there will be aspects you like and some you don’t. Work on figuring out ways to spend more of your time on the parts you like, whether it is research, writing, teaching, or mentoring, and the rest of your career will naturally unfold along that path. Finally, I see a lot of very early career students feeling a great deal of pressure to publish and write grants. While these are real pressures, try to refocus on answering an interesting question that you care about, or telling a clear and compelling story about research findings. This will keep you focused on where you need to go – the grants and papers will follow, but the path to getting there will be more fun if you let your passion lead you, and you’ll be much more effective at achieving your goals if this is the case.
MITCo Careers Subcommittee
Spotlight Interview Questions
- Where/how do you get your inspiration for your next project?
I like to attend conferences/talks from outside of my direct field of research to learn about new perspectives or experimental methods that I can adopt. Following preclinical work is especially important to me – much of my current research was inspired by exciting outcomes from animal studies.
- What is your target number when it comes to publishing?
A prominent senior scientist once told me their goal was to always have a paper under review. That was somewhat difficult to achieve as a postdoc/trainee, but that advice stuck with me and became easier over time, and now I think it’s a nice concrete goal to work towards.
- In the short-term, we all want to get grants and publish papers, but what do you/did you consider as your long-term career goals? (e.g. tenure, editor positions, directorship positions?)
My long-term career goal is to be in a stable position that provides me ample flexibility to pursue different research ideas. I’m not yet sure whether that will be as tenured professor or in some other position- our field is very dynamic and I don’t want to focus so heavily on one long-term goal that I overlook other potentially fulfilling opportunities.
- Any tips? The work never ends, so what boundaries do you have in place to protect your personal time and your sanity?
I firmly believe you have to set boundaries for yourself. When I first became a postdoc I pushed myself like I was working on my dissertation- I kept thinking I would work really hard “temporarily” until I accomplished the goal of finishing all my work. But work kept accumulating, and I ended up feeling burned out and like I was failing. All of my efforts to work as hard as possible actually caused my productivity to suffer. Eventually I decided I would only work at work and would reserve nights/weekends for myself (except for extreme circumstances), because 99% of things are not so urgent that they can’t wait until tomorrow for me to respond/ work on them. I continue to follow these rules- although I may check email, I rarely respond or do work unless I am in my office during the work week. Since I stop thinking about work for a few hours each day, I no longer feel burned out and I am more productive when I am working. I also think it really helped to have established these boundaries early in my career because my colleagues have come to anticipate my schedule (I no longer receive large requests on the weekends) and I have only gotten busier over time, so developing a work-life balance early helped me to maintain it as the demands on my time increased. Also, once I acknowledged that I wouldn’t ever be “finished” with work, I learned to pace myself better so I don’t feel overwhelmed by my workload.
- In your experience, when is a better time to start a family? Should it be after you graduate, after completion of a post-doctoral fellowship, after completion of few years of first faculty position, or perhaps some other time?
I only recently started my family, but I suspect this decision will be different for everyone. I view my personal and professional lives as being very separate, and I decided that I would start a family when it was the right time for me to do that personally. There will always be more work to do. And since our careers advance through productivity, anything that decreases that (like a baby) can be easily deprioritized, which means there will probably never be a “right time” as far as work is concerned. My personal opinion is that you should pursue a family when that is the right choice for your personal life and then adjust your work expectations to accommodate your new “normal”. You probably won’t be as productive at work for a while, but that is OK because your personal life deserves as much attention as your career.
Advice for young investigators
- What advice would you give to a new grad student, a senior grad student, a new postdoc, or a new investigator?
I have two thoughts. The first is that when you feel like a task cannot be accomplished or have guilt from not meeting goals, it is important to evaluate whether the goal is something you set for yourself and whether it was really achievable. I frequently set goals for myself that are very ambitious (e.g., submit two grants next cycle), and then as I feverishly work to meet the goals I forget that I was the one who set them. Many times when this has happened, I have felt pressured to sacrifice the quality of my work in order to complete them or just felt incredibly stressed. Now when I start feeling this way, I make myself step back to consider whether the deadlines are real or something I created. Most of the time, I imposed them on myself, and when this happens I force myself to acknowledge that my plan was probably too ambitious to begin with and to set new, more reasonable goals (e.g., submit one grant now and another at a later cycle).
The second is to say yes to as many new opportunities as you can without sacrificing your ability to manage everything. Everything you do becomes an area of expertise on your CV and I have watched many colleagues become inspired enough to change career paths or receive unexpected job offers simply because they spontaneously agreed to contribute (often in a minor way) to a project that was outside of their wheelhouse and may even have been perceived as an extra burden on them at the time. This includes new research skills as well as professional opportunities (e.g., reviewing journal articles, participating on committees, etc..).