Wednesday, January 09, 2019

State of the lab 6 – group turnover and getting back in the job market

This blog post is part of a yearly series and marks the end of the 6th year as a group leader at EMBL-EBI. Continuing on the theme of the last post of this series, 2018 was a year of wrapping up projects. We finished and made available 4 preprints (plus a few collaborations) in 2018 with 4 more manuscripts ready to be submitted early this year. As in 2017 the group continued to work at full potential with most lab members having been in the group for several years. Some of the turnover I was expecting last year was postponed for the current year. This will make 2019 particularly challenging both personally and professionally with 3 postdocs and 3 PhD students leaving. I have had a few conversations about lab turnover with more senior colleagues. Their typical responses have been that while it is hard to imagine how the group can survive when experienced people leave the incoming lab members bring new ideas and are a great opportunity to start new directions. Being an optimist I look forward to this new chapter in the group although it will be certainly sad to say goodbye to so many people.    

We often talk about the issues in academia that are not great: the publish-or-perish mentality, chasing the big journals, the job market, etc. Looking back through the last 2 years I really want to make the point of how great it has been to manage this team of scientists. We got to hit that sweet spot where most team members have been in the group for a few years, know each other’s’ capacities and there are synergies in skill sets and projects. With group members doing a mix of computational and experimental work and a knowledge base ranging from structural biology to genetics. It feels like we could aim our collective capacity to almost any problem and we would make progress. I guess this is what is expected but for me it was the first time seeing it build up within the group. I am sure the group will hit that sweet spot again with a different configuration of people and ideas but the next few years will be a period of reconfiguration. 

Group leaders at EMBL typical have a maximum of 9 years and I am currently left with 3 years to move to a new position. Although it is still some time, 3 years means I am now making the last set of hires. We will have 2 postdoc and 1 PhD positions open this year and the group size will start to decrease. Besides focusing on the start of the new projects I will be very actively applying for funding with the idea of taking that funding with me when I move. Given the time it takes to interview and have decisions made for academic posts I will start applying this year if I find interesting places that will consider hiring me in a joint position or with a delay in the start time. I aim to move the group in 2021 but could start sooner as a joint appointment which would give me time to start the new group and apply to and/or move funding. The job application period at the end of the postdoc was one of the most stressful in my life so I am not looking forward to doing it again.  

Scientifically there is much to write about but instead of trying to summarise what we have finished in 2018 I think it is the right time to write a few separate blog posts with a summary of what we have achieved over the last 6 years. There have been a few separate threads of research that have resulted in multiple manuscripts so I will group them,  describe the work, the people that did it all and what I think are some of the open questions that we may work on in the future.