Friday, May 21, 2021

Lab move to ETH Zurich, the job search and fixed term PI positions

ETH Zurich (credit

Next January, after 9 years at the EMBL, I will be joining ETH Zurich as a tenured faculty of the Department of Biology with my research group hosted at the Institute for Molecular and Systems Biology (IMSB). I am really excited about this move and I think the IMSB is a perfect fit for the type of research that we do. We primarily use computational approaches to study the relation between genotype and phenotype with a specific focus on post-translational regulatory systems (more on the EBI website or my GScholar page). IMSB has a long tradition of method development in large scale measurements of biological systems with a current interest in mechanistically explaining trait variation. The smaller experimental component of our group uses yeast genetics which is also a great fit for the groups around including our future neighbours in the Institute of  Biochemistry. Research wise the group will remain focused on: studying the evolution and functional importance of post-translational regulation; determining the regulatory networks of a cell, and how they change under different conditions including disease. More broadly we also study the mechanisms that underlie trait variation across individuals of the same species. In terms of methods it will remain primarily computational with around 30% of the group devoted to lab work. The lab will be fully equipped for large scale yeast genetics with the exciting addition of having funding for a MS instrument for the proteomics. 

Teaching, scientific integration and group structure

With any move there is always some thoughts about the challenges ahead. Professionally, the types of things on my mind are that I will need to setup the group, integrate myself scientifically and prepare myself for teaching. Setting up the group and integrating myself within the local environment won't be new experiences. I feel I was too slow with both of these things when I first joined EMBL-EBI so I am curious if I will be able to move things along faster this time. Coming from EMBL and the local EBI/Sanger campus I have the impression that ETH is less collaborative but there were clearly many people interested in collaborating just from the small sample I got during interviews. There is an interesting difference in group structure between EMBL and ETH where at ETH a group can have sub-groups with junior PIs that can have varying degrees of independence as per the decision of the more senior PI. Organising a lab in this way will be something new. Finally, I will have to teach at the undergraduate level for the first time. I have always said that students coming out of biology or related topics need to have better training in bioinformatics. While daunting this will be my chance to contribute to this training directly.  

The interview process and decisions

For those less familiar with the EMBL, group leaders are hired for a maximal period of 9 years with only a few exceptions (around 10%) that end up having an open-ended contract. We get generous core funding and get to tap into a great scientific network which more than compensates for the lack of tenure. This means that around year 7 your thoughts start moving into the future. At faculty presentations I would often write how many years I had left in the tittle slide as a personal reminder.  Towards the end of year 7 I started applying and spent most of year 8 applying and interviewing. The first time I applied for PI positions it was all very unidirectional, with myself looking broadly for possible places. This time it felt more like dating a potential future university/institute with expressions of interests on both sides. One of the issues in going into this is that I didn't really know what my value would be in the market. I knew I had a good CV and would certainly find a job, I just didn't know where I could aim for in terms of seniority and resources. That become clearer only after the first interview and the expression of interest of places I felt were really fantastic. 

The second half of 2020 became then about trying to find the best place professionally and personally. I ended up applying to 10 places, interviewed in 8 and received 5 offers. I tried to find a job in my home country (Portugal) but from the two places I was interested one picked another candidate and the other could not make an offer that was not fixed term. The decision ended up being among 3 places with the major differentiation factor being between 2 offers that had less core funding but higher management responsibilities and ETH with incredibly generous core funding and the best scientific fit (but less seniority). Personally the decisions were about staying in the UK or moving to France or Switzerland. There is quite a lot to be said about this choice (safety, adventure, integration, kid friendly, jobs for partner, etc) and in the end we went with Switzerland. While excited I am also anxious about yet another move to what will be my 5th home country, the now almost familiar sense of uprooting and new beginnings. But this is not yet time for goodbyes.

Non-tenure group leader positions (in Europe)

I don't know who invented the fixed term, non tenure track, group leader positions in academia. It may have been EMBL and this model has clearly spread across Europe with many research institutes having some form of junior positions that have a variable number of years (5 to 12) to set up a group and then necessarily need to move on to a different place. EMBL does this because it is funded by many member state countries to train the next generation of "academic leaders" that will lead research groups across the member states. The obvious advantage of hosting these positions is that it keeps the institute forever young if you manage the turnover well. I think these positions can work well if they remain a relatively small proportion of the total PI/faculty positions; there is some level of support to at least kick start the group; and the positions last a sufficient number of years. Having gone through this at EMBL my impression is that 7 years would be the bare minimum and 9-10 years would be ideal. This also depends on the level of support beyond the PI salary. If conditions are not met then it is not worth setting up people for failure with the selfish goal of using the higher turnover to bring in new ideas/methods. Don't give people super postdoc positions for 3-5 years with no funding and no chances of tenure just because you want fresher ideas around. If there is some mechanism for tenure or open ended contract then it should be crystal clear from the start how (un)likely this is and what are the transparent criteria for achieving it.