Dear ACNP: Ask the experts your questions about career development

Dear ACNP: Ask the experts your questions about career development

One of the missions of the ACNP Membership Taskforce is to give individuals who are relatively new to the College information about the resources available to them through the ACNP.   The large concentration of highly successful and prominent scientists in the College provides an incredible reservoir of knowledge and experience that newer investigators could tap into for insights about career development and other related issues.  Yet, we realize that it can sometimes be intimidating for young scientists to 'jump-start' a conversation with a famous name in the field. Therefore, in order to facilitate communication between junior and senior members of the ACNP, we developed an anonymous advice column in which junior investigators (Associate Members, Travel Awardees, and Trainees) were asked to submit questions they might have about career development and the ACNP, and well-established members of the College were asked to respond.  We received several excellent questions and were fortunate to have three highly experienced mentors submit very thoughtful responses. We hope that this can serve as an 'ice-breaker' for continued, bidirectional communication between our current and future members!


1.    Not every senior faculty member is well suited to be a mentor for junior researchers. How can a young scientist quickly determine if his/her mentor is a good fit and if he/she will fulfill the expectations of the trainee?

a.    First, get a clear sense of your expectations as a trainee. Write them down, and discuss them with your peers. Are they realistic? Can you identify peers for whom such expectations have been met? If so, the next step is to see whether your prospective mentor is one who can meet these expectations. Here, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Speak with the mentor's former trainees, to see if their expectations have been met. Lastly, meet with your prospective mentor, share your ideas of what you are hoping to get from the relationship, and likewise, get a sense of what his/her expectations are for you. With this data, you should be equipped to make an informed decision. And if all else fails, "use 'The Force'."
b.    Before accepting a position, talk to current and previous trainees to get their opinion on the quality of mentoring that goes on in the lab. Once you are there, if mentoring does not meet your expectations, consider establishing a relationship with another PI in the department who better fits your style and expectations.  People are frequently open to mentoring junior scientists in other lab groups, at least to a certain degree. It is possible that you will end up with multiple mentors, each of whom covers a different aspect of your career development. But always discuss such plans with your "official" mentor first!
c.    The best "quick test" is to have face-to-face contact with your potential mentor and share a meal.  Eating together represents an interesting/political process to evaluate whether the chemistry is going to work, whether the "natural hierarchy" will not disadvantage you in working with this particular mentor, and generally, such interaction is usually more comfortable and relaxed than other face-to-face encounters.
d.    Even if you feel that your mentor by and large is fulfilling your expectations, it can be to your advantage to still seek out additional mentors, even if on an informal basis.  Availing yourself of the range of perspectives (and personal experiences) of a few different senior colleagues during these critical phases of your training can only enhance the quality of your overall development.

2.    What is the best piece of advice you would give to someone starting their first faculty position with regards to setting up a lab and hiring staff?
a.    Work within your means. Of course, it's best to have lots of means, so start-up packages, including equipment and salary for support staff, are critically important. Even if you have the means, see what resources (equipment, personnel) exist around you, in neighboring labs, and view these as opportunities for resource efficiency, training for you and your future staff, and scientific collaborations. Set up a lab that can generate solid data and allow you to develop and test your own hypotheses, in an area that you can "carve out" for yourself separate from those around you, and not necessarily one that will put you onto the hemline of science. Staff hiring is a very important process: make sure to interview all applicants personally, and speak directly with people who are providing letters of reference. People will tell you things on the phone that they won't put in letters of reference. Understand the short and long term goals of your applicants, and realize that they will have lives and real events – school, family, health issues - that will intersect with their work energies.
b.    Take it slow. If possible, negotiate an extended period (5 years?) in which to spend your startup package. This will help make sure that you buy what you really need, not what you think you will need. Always do your homework before making any investment in equipment or other resources. But if you do all possible homework and an investment still fails to pay off, don't ruminate! Mistakes are part of the business. Learn from them and move on. Regarding hiring staff, always talk to their references before making any decision. If you sense that you have made a mistake, talk to your HR department about how to proceed.  One thing I have learned is that first impressions don't always count for much. Sometimes the people who seem like they will be stars simply do not pan out (e.g., all talk, no data), whereas others who are less impressive at first turn out to be wonderful trainees and colleagues. In addition, be aware that it can be difficult for a new faculty member to attract students and postdocs. If you have grant funding, you have to get the work done in a defined time-frame, so you can't be too picky or set unreasonable standards. Find someone who can do the work that has to be done, even if they are not ideal in all respects.
c.    First, since all politics and hiring are local, speak to several individuals who have set up comparable laboratories within the last 5 years in the same setting in which you are working.  Make a list of questions that are quite specific.  Spend time learning from Human Resources as to what you can and cannot do.  Spend time with a mentor to see how realistic your initial expectations are for running such an operation.

3.    What advice do you have regarding going on the market as a junior faculty member? What is the best way to initiate a job search as an Instructor or Assistant Professor, and what pitfalls should I watch out for?
a.    If you are at a point where you are "going on the market," you need to know your strengths, your weaknesses, your goals, and what "markets" will best mesh with these factors. You may have strengths (or at least licensure) as a clinician and educator, that will be of value to academic programs with clinical and teaching loads; these assets might fill an important niche with the program – one that the Chair or Chief needs to have filled – and thus afford you some flexibility in negotiating a package that will help you establish a clinical or basic research program. Lacking clinical credentials, if your strengths are in basic research, you'll want to emphasize your publication and early funding record, and aim for a program where your science has something to offer to the larger scientific portfolio – to synergize with, or help grow science in a particular direction. Being in a Department with a heavy clinical presence may not be to your advantage. If your science is your main (or only) strong suit, it will be important for your research to not be redundant with existing research programs. Finally, if your research credentials are modest but you love teaching and have a solid track record in this area, and you are a non-clinician, don't overlook opportunities at small, liberal arts colleges or teaching-focused smaller universities: these environments can be very supportive of early careers, and even allow you to develop research activities, with bright, motivated students and less frantic publish-or-perish deadlines. A job search takes many directions: organizations (e.g. SFN and others) have job boards, journals post jobs, personal contacts made at meetings or among peers are important, and even contacts found in the literature are valuable. Work with a mentor to develop your best possible CV, and get it out there. Be proactive: set up meetings at scientific conferences. Obviously, the best way to "start" the process is to have a stellar record, and in some cases (e.g. the K99/R00 or several Young Investigator Awards), having your own money to develop independent early career positions is incredibly helpful. In terms of pitfalls, there are too many to list here, but if you follow the suggestions above, you'll miss many. Two that you'll always hear, and that are always true, in terms of negotiating positions and start-up packages: 1. Get it in writing;  2. You get what you get when you get there: don't think that, a year later, you can go back to your Chair and ask for more, and expect to get it.
b.    Wait until you are ready and be realistic. The market is very competitive, in every niche (ranging from traditional PI positions to teaching positions at small institutions).  If searches are underway at your own institution, ask about the qualifications of the applicants that are selected for interviews. See if you fit the criteria. Begin talking about your plans with your postdoctoral mentor well in advance of your anticipated search, as considerable lead time is required to establish a competitive CV. In general, it is difficult to be competitive without a track record of obtaining your own grant support, e.g., NRSA, K Award, or small grant. Regarding pitfalls, when interviewing, be sure you understand what portion of your salary is guaranteed and for how long. Does the startup package include your salary or is the salary paid from a different pot? Ask how tenure is defined. For example, an institution may have tenure, but it may only guarantee 50% of your salary. Do the math so you understand the implications of paying 50% of your salary, plus personnel and supplies, from a 200K grant. Talk to people who have had their own lab for 2-3 years. Find out what they wish they had done differently.
c.    You are unlikely to hit your first target with a bulls-eye.  Carry out as much investigative work as necessary to know the places you are applying.  Speak to at least one or two people who are currently working in each place you apply.  Know that negotiation is going to be necessary. Stay persistent and optimistic.
d.    Your next job is not necessarily your last"-- some positions are a great fit, some are not.  If you find yourself in a bad position for whatever reason, remember it happens even to more senior colleagues, and you have the ability to move on if that is the best decision for you.

4.    How did you decide that the ACNP is the best investment of time and money for your professional career?
a.    I went to an ACNP meeting, saw the science being presented, the atmosphere of the scientific sessions and interactions among scientists, the level of mentorship and interest in early career scientists, the collaborations and friendships formed in the process, and the dedication of the program staff. I attended the other meetings in my areas of interest – SFN, SOBP, ICOSR and a few others – and narrowed my list down to a number of meetings that allowed me to be most efficient, to experience a breadth of topics, and to achieve the goals of my particular developmental stage in science. I have not been disappointed: ACNP remains the most important meeting for me each year.
b.    I never thought of it in exactly these terms, but I believe that ACNP is unique in many respects: 1) It is one of the few meetings where outstanding basic science and outstanding clinical science are presented side by side, offering basic and clinical scientists an opportunity to share results and ideas. If you are working on an extremely molecular/reductionist aspect of a psychiatric or neurological disorder, it can be refreshing to take a few hours to learn from a clinical scientist about the disease process you are supposedly studying! 2) It is small enough to get to know people over the years, which makes it fun. 3) It is attended by high profile scientists, so it is good for networking. 4) It is easy to get involved. 5) It has a long and interesting history. Learning about this history can give you insight into current issues in the field of neuropsychopharmacology. 6) It takes place in nice locations! Your kids may even want to come along.
c.    ACNP represents a fabulous long-term networking opportunity for researchers to develop both social and professional relationships.  One can accelerate the development of peer-group interaction, which is necessary both for intelligence gathering and for support. The ACNP is also a relatively informal environment in which to seek interaction with ACNP members at every level.

5.    If a postdoc can stay in an excellent lab as a postdoc for over five years, while being productive, will that postdoc find it harder to secure a tenure-track position than someone who only stayed for three or four years?
a.    This really varies case-by-case. The key is to develop as a scientist, and this means be productive: publish good science, formulate ideas carefully, test important hypotheses. When is the right time to make the move to the next level? This depends a lot on how you are developing personally and scientifically, along with what is happening in your area of science, in the dynamics of the lab in which you work, what openings become available, and what is happening in your life "outside the lab." Control what you can control: your scientific productivity and funding base will be key indicators of whether the moment is right for a move. There's no harm in testing the waters by speaking with people at meetings; your PI / mentor will also have a good sense of whether the time is right for you. Certainly, they will have a conflict of interest, just as any parent does in watching their kids grow and individuate. But if you have chosen a good mentor (see above), they should be able help guide you to through this step.
b.    The postdoc with the best record in terms of publications, grants, and letters of recommendation will be the "winner" and nobody will care whether it took 3 or 5 years. In the current environment, building a competitive CV typically takes more than 3-4 years.
c.    Usually, the answer to most questions is more peer-review journal articles, clear expertise in a particular area, an ability to speak clearly in a group about one's work, and to appreciate the politics of science.

We gratefully acknowledge the efforts of the senior ACNP members who provided responses to the questions: Dr. David Kupfer, Dr. Neal Swerdlow, and Dr. Marina Wolf.